Cisco’s Internet Router in Space (IRIS) initiative and hosted payloads have been big discussions in recent years, particularly in terms of how they could shape future government and military strategies. The question now is what happens next, and will they transform certain parts of the space business?
On May 7, a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 rocket orbited the GEO-1 satellite equipped with a $1.3 billion Space-Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) payload built by Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. GEO-1, the first of four SBIRS satellites, consists of infrared sensors that will detect heat coming off of rockets and missiles directed at the United States and provides an example of how government agencies are employing space-based router services.
Even though it is now more than six years after the SBIRS High program introduced the concept of hosted payloads to the communications industry, satellite operators still find themselves answering the question, ‘What is a space-based router and what does it do?’ for potential commercial and government sector customers. The services provided by hosted payloads — modules that are attached to a commercial satellite with independently operated hardware sharing the satellite’s power supply and transponders — have evolved beyond the boundaries of Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and observational data collection for civil space agencies and research organizations. The emergence of the space router has brought with it the ability to provide a variety of services for commercial and enterprise customers, enabling IP application users to directly communicate over satellite without having to double-hop data to and from an intermediate Earth station.
Cisco System’s Internet Routing in Space (IRIS), which uses the company’s 18400 Space Router, was the first successful application of a commercially hosted payload when the program was launched on the Space Systems/Loral (SS/L)-built Intelsat 14 satellite in November 2009. The router’s configuration, triggered by a development contract from the U.S. Department of Defense, was designed to merge communications received on various frequency bands and transmit them to multiple users and support network services for voice, video and data communications for the U.S. military from 315 degrees East over the Atlantic Ocean.
Cisco IRIS general manager Greg Pelton is at the head of this charge, and still uses a simple analogy to describe what IRIS can do for a variety of vertical markets. “Think of the user being a train on a track. Operators have 10 tracks where their trains can’t switch tracks or add any other trains on the track because that infrastructure is dedicated to specific trains. When you put IRIS in the mix, managing all the bandwidth as part of the network, those train tracks become an interstate highway where I have 10 lanes and the ability to shift cars between them,” says Pelton. “If a lane is empty, I can put more cars in that lane to get them to their destination faster. My total throughput on the highway is a lot higher than what I have on the railway track. At the same time, if they need to use more than a lane, I can give them space in the other lanes as long as the other customers aren’t using it. So they can burst into the other lanes and make use of them and they can pay for that privilege. This is especially important for video and telepresence, which require much more bandwidth.”
An evaluation of the IRIS service by Cisco and the Pentagon was completed in April 2010, which analyzed the system’s ability to route IP traffic natively on the satellite, while increasing throughput and reducing latency with its built-in Cisco Internetworking Operating System (IOS) software and onboard software-defined radio.
Cisco has had its share of critics as to whether or not space-based networking and hosted payload technology can stay up-to-date on a 15-year-old satellite and if it can co-exist with bent-pipe delivery services. Cisco’s 18400 Space Router found its place as part of TeleCommunication Systems’ (TCS) network infrastructure in February, when Cisco contracted TCS to operate its IRIS solution on the Intelsat IS-14 satellite. The two companies outlined goals to target deployed solutions to government and commercial markets and provide increased bandwidth optimization and application flexibility to the end-to-end Cisco IP.
Pelton says the partnership is an example of how the hosted payload concept has made significant progress during the last year. “The most exciting aspect of where we are now is that we’re on the same page with our customers. There is a much more proactive response from the government this year than there was last year. From our end, TCS’ experience in the government sector helped established valuable foundations for partnerships. TCS provided a bunch of great leads recently at the SATELLITE 2011 show. I think a majority of customers are convinced that a hosted payload’s ability to be updated via software is real and can provide real value; our worries have shifted from our perception in the market to the possibility that we’ll sell out the platform too soon. That’s a good thing to worry about.”
Cisco’s next challenge is filling out services rather than seats, as government customers have yet to figure out what it wants out of its network-based technology, according to Pelton. “We’re trying to establish a long-term plan about 10 years out and come out with a result that includes a combination of what commercial end users want and what will work best for U.S. government users that have been operating in the WGS infrastructure.”