Aquabase Alpha & the Consultant's Challenge
by Brian Dunning
article | del.icio.us
destroyer's bow sliced through a monstrous swell that lifted it
nearly on its end. The Consultant felt his stomach hover between
his lungs as the fast ship hung for a moment in mid air, then
dropped all too fast, burying the front third of the ship in the
next wave. The Captain, well accustomed to the North Sea weather,
took an absent minded sip from his mug and glanced at his wristwatch.
"Should have heard from them by now," said the Captain,
and turned his head slightly back toward the other men. "Anything
"Nothing on active, sir," answered a crewman, one hand
cupped to his headphones.
"Well," said the Captain, and sniffed and set his cup
down, "we can't wait all day. He's got his OSCAR suit on,
they'll find him."
"Aye-aye, skipper," said a crewman, and was joined
by two other burly seamen. The Consultant looked around with a
quizzical expression. In a moment, the three seamen gripped his
orange padded arms and one pushed the door open with his foot.
"Captain," said the Consultant, but didn't get a chance
to say any more. The seamen lifted his feet clear of the deck
and he found himself falling toward the surging black water.
And then everything was dark and the sound of the bubbles was
surprisingly loud. He felt warm and dry inside the survival suit,
and the sensation was exactly like floating through space. A throbbing
mechanical hum grew louder and louder, and he thrashed to turn
in the water to look. He saw vast gray shapes growing brighter
and closer, slicing toward him, like the blades of a fan the size
of a tennis court. The propellers.
The Consultant let go a howl that bubbled noiselessly toward
the surface. He fought the suction with his arms and kicked his
feet, but the charging waves on the surface high above grew quieter
and more distant. The propeller was pulling him in.
Suddenly it happened. A white circle appeared at his feet, like
the shutter of a giant camera opening below him. The sharpest
pull he'd ever felt gripped his legs and yanked him through the
circle, and he landed hard on a white painted metal floor. The
shutter snapped closed and the last of the seawater landed on
him like a load of bricks.
The Consultant tore the orange hood off his head, shook the water
out of his hair, spit out a mouthful of brine and looked around.
"At last you're here," said Dr. Rance Macklin. He checked
a mark on his clipboard and slipped his pen back into the breast
pocket of his lab coat. "You'll find our FileMaker Server
Incredulous, the Consultant sat in a pool of draining seawater
and scruffed the water out of his hair with his hand. He looked
in the direction Dr. Macklin indicated and saw a Pentium computer.
"Yes, this is Aquabase Alpha. And yes, you're on the clock.
Please look at the files we've created."
A door slipped open for a moment and the Consultant caught a
glimpse down a long corridor. Aquabase Alpha was clearly a vast
complex. He noted the thick bundle of CAT-5 cables running overhead.
"This is the Server?"
"Yes," said Dr. Macklin. "All the files are hosted
from here. Per your earlier instructions, we've asked everyone
to log off, so you can have full access to the files for a few
"What seems to be the trouble?"
"No real trouble," said Dr. Macklin. "But we need
better integration from our remote users. When our teams go down
in the research subs, the ULF low frequency network is too slow
for them to access the FileMaker Server effectively. So they take
a copy of the file, and we import their records into the master
copy when they return. We'd like you to create some kind of a
synchronization routine, so we won't have to do the manual importing
"Are those the only remote users you have?"
"We have several dozen users who access the system via our
local network," said Dr. Macklin, gesturing at the cables
overhead. "But we also have users who travel freely throughout
the facility. We haven't had any luck getting a wireless network
due to structural interference. Excuse me a moment."
The Consultant watched as Dr. Rance Macklin took a quick call
on his PCS phone. When he finished, the Consultant said:
"You do seem to have cell phone coverage."
"We do," said Dr. Macklin, "and someone suggested
we all get those phones that have a Palm computer built in, and
use FileMaker Mobile. What about that?"
"You might actually be more satisfied using Custom Web Publishing,
and accessing the master served database via WML pages."
Dr. Macklin raised an eyebrow. It sounded a little wacky. A little
overkill? A little crazy? A little unreliable?
"Not at all," continued the Consultant. "Any CDML
programmer with modest skills can easily create WML compliant
pages that anyone can access with their web enabled mobile phone.
All you'd need to do is set up FileMaker 5.5 Unlimited on a machine
- here, this one would do nicely - and add the custom MIME type
for WML. You just need the server to have a public IP address
so your mobile phone provider's WAP gateway can access it. You
do have Internet here in the middle of the ocean, I trust?"
"Excellent. Pricey, but excellent. Now let's talk about
those guys in the submarines. I'd like to meet with one of them
to evaluate their needs."
"Easily done," said Dr. Macklin, and pressed a chrome
foot pedal that looked suspiciously like those found on some public
toilets. There was a loud sucking sound and the inch of cold seawater
the Consultant sat in began to rush around in a tightening whirlpool.
With a final pressurized blast, the Consultant found himself spinning
in a jet of bubbles beneath Aquabase Alpha, the deep blue of the
ocean's depths expanding in all directions.
Once again a white circle opened beneath him and he was dragged
downward. As it slammed shut and deluged him, the Consultant found
himself dripping on a cold metal grate and bathed in dark red
A chair - metallic and bristling with attachments and blinking
lights and controls - spun round, and a telescoping electric eye
shot toward him. It looked him over minutely with whirring electrical
sounds, and suddenly retracted into the strange personage facing
"You're late," said Professor Grant Mbenga, one third
man, one third mechanical chair, and one third an extension of
the scout submarine's controls. He seemed not merely plugged in,
but part of the black machine console surrounded by a curving
sky of thick Lexan, beyond which a school of black tuna shot soundlessly
by through the deep indigo gloom.
"I'm sorry," said the Consultant, "I didn't know
you were expecting me."
"Rance radioed me that you have something to show me. You
think you can arrange access to our central FileMaker Server from
"I can," said the Consultant, scrambling to his feet.
"And also eliminate the need to synchronize files, and end
up with multiple copies of the same database. We're setting up
a Custom Web Publishing server upstairs, and I propose to create
a web interface to your files. You'll have live access to your
data, and since it requires only a tiny fraction of the network
bandwidth needed by a FileMaker LAN solution, the slow speed of
your ULF connection won't be an issue. In fact, sir, I recommend
Custom Web Publishing solutions all the time, whenever any kind
of network connection can be established."
The electric eye shot out again and probed the Consultant critically
from head to toe, then slipped back into Professor Mbenga. The
Consultant did not want to guess how.
"So you've connected all of us to a single database server,"
said the Professor, "those working remotely, and even those
with only a mobile phone for access. And you've eliminated our
synchronization problem, and we'll no longer have multiple unsynchronized
copies of the same databases all over Aquabase Alpha. My young
friend, is there anything you can't do?"
"I can't get this orange suit off."
"Now why should you want to do that?" said Professor
Grant Mbenga, and pushed his chrome foot pedal to the floor.