Cisco's new-market ambitions extend into orbit

The company expects satellite-based routers to change global communication

At its user conference in San Francisco last week, Cisco boasted about the 30 new businesses it's developing. One is scheduled to launch by the end of this year -- in a very literal way.

Slideshow: Evolution of the router

The company that pioneered the Internet router is about to enter a new frontier, sending one into geostationary orbit on a satellite. It's the first big step in a U.S. Defense Department-led initiative, called Internet Routers In Space (IRIS), that could eventually make it easier and less expensive to get high-speed Internet access where wires and cables don't reach.

Satellites carry Internet data and connect to the Internet through base stations on the ground, but they are really a separate network, said Greg Pelton, general manager of IRIS at Cisco. An Earth station beams a signal up to the satellite at a certain frequency, and the craft bounces it back down to another, predefined Earth station. Users, such as service providers and government agencies, have to lease that frequency and sit on it whether they are using it or not.

Satellite links represent discrete point-to-point connections in an Internet that's designed to route packets around the world on any peering network and any kind of physical link. That's because there are no routers in space, according to Pelton. If communications satellites had routers, they could take in IP packets and send them to a variety of places, via different Earth stations or other satellites, forging new links whenever needed. Rather than having to pick a particular link and lease it, users could just pay for an Internet service that uses satellites as part of its physical backbone.

Routing in space would also cut down on lag times, satellite consultant Mark Chartrand pointed out. Because routing can only be done on the ground today, data packets have to be sent to Earth and back every time they are forwarded from one satellite link to another, he said. That adds one-quarter of a second of latency per round trip. Routers could solve that.

"It makes satellites smart, and it avoids hops," Chartrand said.

Some satellites, such as those used by Iridium, can communicate directly with each other, but not using the universal standard of IP. In fact, current satellite technology is largely made up of expensive, proprietary equipment, Chartrand said.

Two recent developments have readied the satellite industry for IP routers, according to Pelton. One is an explosion in the capacity of satellites, from a typical capability of about 2Gb per second (Gbps) to as much as 150Gbps. This became possible because of technology that let satellites tap into a set of frequencies called the Ka band, as well as a new antenna technology called "spot beams." Rather than using one antenna to reach a whole continent, some satellites now have many antennas, each focused on a certain area. All these "spot beams" can use the same frequency at the same time, which multiplies how much data can be transmitted on that frequency, Pelton said.

That capacity is needed as users demand higher performance for new forms of content, especially video, Pelton said. And satellite broadband providers are already converting their land-based backhaul networks to IP, so they want to extend it across their infrastructure, he added.

Cisco already has one IP router in space. About five years ago, the company modified one of its Mobile Access Routers and sent it into orbit on a scientific satellite. Cisco has used that router for experiments, but it has little capacity and not enough power available to operate full time, Pelton said.

The real test begins with the launch of a purpose-built device that is already in the IS-14, a major communications satellite from satellite operator Intelsat, awaiting a launch scheduled for the end of this year. IS-14 originally was set to go up in the first quarter of this year, but the date was pushed back by overall launch delays at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Cisco said. Once IS-14 is in orbit, the U.S. government will experiment with the router for three months, after which carriers and private enterprises will test it for about a year, Pelton said.

A space-based router can't be built from inexpensive, off-the-shelf components, Pelton said. Everything down to the processors themselves has to be built to withstand large amounts of radiation over an expected life span of 15 years, so Cisco turned to specialized component providers. Cooling is also a problem, despite the extreme cold of the vacuum of space, because there are no convection currents to move heat away from the router. Therefore, the router effectively needs to have a heat sink that makes contact with outer space itself, Pelton said.

Like other Cisco routers, the IRIS router can be managed remotely, Pelton said. But because it will be impossible to make a service call in person, there is extra redundancy built in. It's actually two routers in one, with one unit for redundancy, and includes two separate modem devices, also for redundancy. The whole package measures about 24 inches (61 centimeters) by 18 inches by 18 inches, he said. It's one part of a satellite the size of a school bus and is connected to just three of the more than 60 transponders, or antennas, on the satellite, he said.

Cisco believes the router will have a throughput of about 100Mbps once in space, a small figure for Earth-based routers, unprecedented in orbit. It will have Cisco's full IOS (Internetworking Operating System) software. It also includes IPSec (IP Security) capability for encrypting traffic.

Power is also an issue. Despite the fact that this type of satellite typically operates on 5,000 to 7,000 watts of power from its solar panels, only a small fraction of that is available to the router, Pelton said.

Cisco's ultimate vision is a large network of satellites with routers, which could carry out routing among themselves. "When the technology reaches the right level of maturity, it should be the main mission of the satellite," Pelton said. Cisco has no projection of how big the market for space-based routers will be, nor how much it has invested in IRIS, for which it funded development and manufacturing of the router. But the worldwide satellite market is about US$125 billion a year and growing at a double-digit rate, Pelton said.

There is a lot of interest in this idea, especially from the military, according to Chartrand. Armed forces need low-latency communications within war zones that are hard to predict, he said. Also, a routed network of satellites could continue operating even if Earth stations were destroyed. The U.S. Air Force has pushed back the launch of its own planned satellite router to 2019, a move that should benefit Cisco, Chartrand said.

How real Cisco's satellite dreams turn out to be will become clearer once the satellite is in orbit and test results come in, he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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