Cisco Views IRIS Experiment as Market Primer for Space Routers

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WASHINGTON — Cisco Systems Inc. saw its first space-based Internet router launched Nov. 23 aboard a commercial communications satellite, and the networking technology giant believes demonstrations for various commercial and government customers over the next year will lead to additional orders for the hardware.

San José, Calif.-based Cisco built the router for the U.S. Defense Department’s Internet Routing in Space (IRIS) technology demonstration. U.S. Strategic Command in 2007 contracted with Intelsat General Corp. of Bethesda, Md., a subsidiary of satellite fleet operator Intelsat of Bermuda and Washington, to host the payload aboard the Intelsat 14 satellite. After numerous delays, the satellite was successfully launched toward the 45 degrees west longitude orbital slot aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

IRIS is the first dedicated U.S. military payload to reach orbit on a commercial satellite, a business model that industry officials say will save money for the government. Last year, SES Americom of Princeton, N.J., signed a contract with the U.S. Air Force to host an experimental missile warning sensor on a communications satellite scheduled to launch in January 2011. The Pentagon is looking at a number of other hosted-payload opportunities, including an ultra-high frequency communications payload and a space weather sensor.

The Defense Department will begin a three-month demonstration in January to determine the military utility of doing Internet routing in space. Historically, satellite communications networks have done the majority of signal processing and data distribution with hardware on the ground. In this so-called bent-pipe architecture, the satellite is merely a conduit for data. With IRIS, much more of the brains of the satellite network are built into the satellite itself, Greg Pelton, Cisco’s IRIS project manager, said in a Nov. 24 interview.

There are many advantages to on-board data processing, including the ability to better manage bandwidth allocation, Pelton said.

“There’s difficulty today in redirecting or using satellite bandwidth for different purposes,” he said. “In a particular region, if you wanted to move allocated bandwidth from one group of users to another, that is a long and difficult process. When a user is downloading a video and needs more bandwidth, [IRIS] can take care of that and provide more bandwidth if it’s available. The flexibility to move the satellite to the mission is critical, and it’s very hard with satellites today.”

Although the experiment is funded by the Pentagon, Cisco owns the IRIS router and has leased three transponders aboard Intelsat 14 for the experiment. Once the Pentagon’s phase of the experiment concludes, Cisco will conduct an additional year of demonstrations for various potential customers in hopes of eventually selling the IRIS payload to a service provider and seeding the market for additional space-based routers, Pelton said. He identified the potential customers as both industrial and governmental, but declined to be more specific.

“Commercial satellite operators are interested in this,” Pelton said. “They have different usages and scenarios that might not be covered by the [military demonstration], so we have a unique opportunity at this time to engage as many potential customers as possible, build awareness, build demand, fine-tune the business cases and hopefully take this to the point where we are selling the commercial product to lots of customers.”

Intelsat will work very closely with Cisco and the military as it has great interest in potentially adding Internet routers to its future satellites, said Don Brown, vice president for hosted payloads at Intelsat General.

Whether the customers are military or commercial, the next routers Cisco builds likely will feature higher throughput than IRIS, Pelton said. IRIS is designed to use three transponders with a total throughput of about 90 megabits per second to as many as 300 users. The current design is scalable to perhaps 10 or 12 transponders, but new components would be needed to go higher than that, Pelton said.

Pelton believes military interest in the technology will be strong, particularly following the cancellation early this year of the Air Force’s Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) communications system, which was to feature space-based routers. The mission needs T-Sat intended to meet have not gone away, and commercial space-based routers like IRIS could support “a good chunk” of those needs while getting an operational capability to space far sooner than was planned with T-Sat, Pelton said.

While Internet routing in space technology is intriguing, its adoption may be hampered by the fact that computer and network hardware tend to reach obsolescence relatively quickly, requiring replacement every few years, whereas communications satellites can last 20 years or more, one Defense Department official said. Pelton responded that IRIS is entirely software programmable, making it “future-proof.”

“This is something we’ve thought long and hard about,” he said. “Historically that was the case because the implementation of network functionality was purely hardware-based. Where we’ve broken that model with IRIS is by having a hardware platform that is entirely software programmable.

“Network hardware changes have been driven by feeds and speeds. If you look at a satellite, it’s built with however many transponders each handling so many megahertz. That doesn’t change for the lifespan of the satellite. So from a hardware perspective, there will never be bigger ports or more ports on a satellite for its lifespan.”