Cisco Seeing Solid Early Demand for IRIS Service

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SAN FRANCISCO — In April, when Cisco Systems made plans to spend a year showing potential commercial and military customers how communications traffic could flow more quickly and efficiently with the help of an Internet Router in Space (IRIS), company officials thought demand would grow slowly over time. So they were surprised when a few months into the evaluation period, customers said they were convinced of the utility of IRIS and ready to buy the service on an ongoing basis.

“We didn’t think customers would want to buy it so soon,” said Greg Pelton, program manager for San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco.

To meet that demand, Cisco is holding discussions with satellite service providers and making plans to offer a commercial IRIS capability by the middle of 2011, Pelton said.

Since November 2009 when Cisco first launched the radiation-hardened version of a commercial Internet router into geosynchronous orbit aboard the Intelsat 14 satellite, the technology has been used in a variety of applications including providing emergency relief in the wake of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti and supporting military operations around the world. To demonstrate IRIS to customers, Cisco leased three Intelsat 14 satellite transponders from Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington.

Unlike traditional satellite networks, which rely heavily on ground-based equipment to manage traffic and process signals, IRIS puts much more of that capability on the spacecraft, which speeds the flow of information and provides additional bandwidth to meet spikes in demand, Pelton said. IRIS also is designed to receive signals transmitted in one frequency and transfer them to recipients in another frequency, a feature that improves communications between international military coalition partners who often rely on different types of satellite communications equipment, a U.S. Army official said.

In October, Cisco uploaded new software to IRIS to expand the router’s capability. This was the first time new software was uploaded to an Internet router flying on a commercial communications satellite, Pelton said. While the process for uploading IRIS software was not very different from that of upgrading Cisco’s terrestrial routers, company officials worked in a careful, methodical manner to ensure that the process did not compromise service, he added.

The new software offers several features that may be useful to military customers, Pelton said, including the ability to connect groups of people and manage networks without using a terrestrial infrastructure. People can make phone calls without relying on ground stations. In addition, the software upgrade will allow Cisco to assist specific groups in setting up their own networks. International coalition partners, for example, could establish networks designed to relay communications securely among their forces, Pelton said.

In addition, the latest version of the IRIS software allows customers to capture a single video stream and share it with multiple end users. This capability could be used by military officials to share video imagery captured by unmanned aerial vehicles. Those videos could be sent to military headquarters for processing and distribution as they are now. When needed, however, the imagery also could be shared instantaneously with ground troops in the area, Pelton said.

The software improvements also enhance IRIS security features. For military end users, “security has been a huge concern,” Pelton said. The latest software allows the router to link directly to the U.S. Defense Department’s Non-classified Internet Protocol Router Network as well as Secret Internet Protocol Routing Network, which is used for sharing sensitive tactical and operational information.

To date, the majority of IRIS end users have been government customers including military telecommunications services provider Paradigm Secure Communications of Britain and its owner, Astrium Services. Paradigm is testing IRIS under a partnership agreement with Cisco announced in July. Paradigm provides beyond-line-of-sight communications, including satellite links provided by the Astrium-owned Skynet military communications satellites, to deployed British forces under a contract with the British Ministry of Defence.

“Military customers are very sophisticated users of satellite communications,” Pelton said. “They tend to be early adopters of new technology.”

Early this year, the U.S. Strategic Command conducted a four-month evaluation of IRIS led by the U.S. Army’s Space & Missile Defense Battle Laboratory in Colorado Springs, Colo. That evaluation, known as the IRIS Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration, showed that space-based routers can cut the time needed to send and receive data messages, improve the quality of voice-over-Internet communications and provided Internet access to military personnel aboard ships and on islands, an Army official said.

The Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration originally was scheduled to last three months but it was extended one month because military officials wanted to continue testing IRIS, Pelton said.