Satellite industry slowly embracing the cloud

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — Intelsat CEO Stephen Spengler says that satellite operators didn’t jump on the cloud services bandwagon as fast as the rest of the telecommunications industry. 

“A few years ago I would say we wouldn’t really think about working with cloud providers, as an industry,” said Spengler, whose company operates around 50 geostationary satellites‚ one of the largest such constellations in the world. “Now, cloud providers want to get to their customers, or get their customers [data to] every location around the world.”

This year, Intelsat, SES, Inmarsat and Viasat all announced partnerships with Microsoft to connect remote customers directly to its Azure cloud network of fiber-linked data centers. Microsoft highlighted farming, mining, shipping and oil and gas drilling as difficult to connect markets that it can reach more effectively using broadband satellites. 

“Historically, if you look at the use of cloud within a satellite organization, it was seen as very much an IT network function,” Greg Quiggle, Kratos’ vice president of product management, said Oct. 8 at the Satellite Innovation conference. 

Now, satellite operators are partnering with cloud service providers, but not on everything, he said.

“A teleport itself hasn’t really changed much in 20 years. It’s still racks and racks of analog hardware,” Quiggle said.  

Ground infrastructure companies who provide hardware and software for teleports — facilities satellite operators use to distribute and control their services — said those facilities could be made a lot more efficient by relying on cloud servers to virtualize network functions. Startups are leading that charge, they said. 

“In the NewSpace world especially, it feels like most companies are cloud first — cloud native — and for the obvious reason that most IT organizations before the NewSpace world were also cloud native,” said Marshall Culpepper, CEO and co-founder of Kubos, a company that provides flight software for satellites. 

Katherine Monson, head of KSAT USA, said customers using the company’s KSAT Lite ground station service to link with their satellites push about 60% of their data to the Amazon Web Services cloud. KSAT customers, many of which are startups operating smallsats in low Earth orbit, make use of Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud, too, she said. 

Rob Call, director of business development at the U.S. division of Swedish Space Corp., another operator of gateways for linking with satellites, said many of its customers are also sending their data to big cloud networks. 

To outsource, or not?

Ground infrastructure companies, while fully in favor of cloud usage, were divided over whether satellite companies should build their own data centers or rely on “public” servers like those of Microsoft, Amazon and Google. 

“The public cloud may not be always as reliable as your private cloud infrastructure,” said Steven Soenens, vice president of product marketing at Skyline Communications, a network management company based in Belgium. 

Soenens said Skyline customers in satellite and terrestrial communications tend to prefer using their own cloud infrastructure. Cybersecurity concerns with public clouds are a big motivation to keep data centers in-house, he said. 

Quiggle said much of the anxiety around public clouds appears rooted in feeling a lack of control, not in actual reliability concerns.  

“I would bet a beer on the fact that the major cloud providers spend more on cybersecurity innovation every year than a large percentage of the [gross national product] of our industry,” Quiggle said. “Because of that, we should be comfortable going there.”

Culpepper also expressed confidence in the security of public clouds, but cautioned that satellite networks that extend to such clouds for critical functions need to secure those links. 

“The link between that data publicly and your operations center is now the weakest link,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not just about it being public, it’s how you integrate.”

Soenens still cautioned about being overly dependent on public clouds, however. 

“Cloud providers are investing much more than anyone else could do individually” on security, he said. “On the other hand we have to face the fact that if something goes wrong in the cloud, it’s a big outage.”