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Satellite Software: Better Management With Fewer Hands

By | September 10, 2001

      By Peter J. Brown

      The capabilities and feature sets that can be found in today’s satellite-oriented network management systems (NMS) are remarkable. While the monitoring and control (M&C) software component in this broader NMS category, for example, still centers primarily on the satellite equipment, the race is on to expand the scope of these systems all the way down the chain to include routers, switches and more.

      If a company can demonstrate competency in providing network management solutions for teleports and satellite networks with their vast global grids and countless remote sites, then there is a strong possibility that this expertise will be applicable and welcome in the terrestrial networking realm as well. Indeed, as readers will soon learn, many software companies who built their reputations in satellite-related endeavors are pursuing customers on the ground with considerable success.

      For satellite fleet operators large and small, the satellite software vendors have focused on simplifying set-ups, making the whole suite of software as user friendly as possible with multiple configurations and screens which put all the right information right at the operator’s fingertips. This software has played a fundamental role in establishing the satellite industry’s reputation for reliability, while pushing the industry steadily into an increasingly automated environment.

      Open Standards And Architectural Flexibility

      The commercial satellite realm is no stranger to automation, and multi-satellite fleet operators are demanding, among other things, that ground systems that are designed for large constellations be tailored to meet their needs as well.

      Inmarsat is one example of an astute satellite operator that has made the most of automation. As Inmarsat increased its fleet from four satellites to nine, it did so while keeping only two operators on duty, according to Scott Norcross, principal software architect at Virginia-based L-3 Communications-Storm Control Systems. “Inmarsat stands out in terms of how it is almost completely automated. Such a hands-off approach is unusual,” Norcross says.

      Inmarsat’s operational framework aside, how exactly would you put an M&C system together for a hypothetical satellite fleet consisting of, let us say, a Loral FS1300, a Lockheed Martin A2100, a Boeing 702 and an Alcatel Spacebus 3000?

      “Among other things, we stress open standards and architectural flexibility with our InControl-Next Generation product line. Satellite operators realize that no solution is going to be 100 percent commercial off-the-shelf, and that some customization will be necessary,” Norcross says. “We adapt our system to meet the customer’s requirements. With Storm’s InControl, everything is streamlined.

      “System automation reduces operations costs and improves reliability by reducing the potential for human error. It also reduces the response time required to deal with critical events and anomalies,” adds Norcross. “Automation centered on a single computer console requires highly graphical and well designed user interfaces.”

      As operators seek more cost-effective solutions, they are encountering eager vendors who are finding lots of reasons for building close relationships among themselves just as the satellite industry as a whole is being reshaped by increasing consolidation. Storm likes to establish partnerships with its customers.

      “We have customers like Astrium and Inmarsat who also serve as partners. This lets us exploit each other’s strengths and provide solutions that satisfy our common goals,” Norcross says. “We also understand that satellite operators would prefer not to buy a new control system with each new satellite they add to their fleet–even if the fleet is made up of satellites from different manufacturers.”

      A Powerful Pairing In Atlanta

      The announcement in June that Industrial Logic Corp. (ILC) had acquired Crystal Computer Corp. is further evidence of the fact that companies with rock solid reputations in the satellite software sector can derive substantial benefits from their partner’s strengths by pairing up. The fact that both companies are based in Atlanta only added to the synergy, which was quite apparent from the start.

      “Crystal is a leader in real-time management solutions for satellite and broadcast customers, and this represents a complementary customer set to our existing customer base primarily in the telecom sector,” says Richard Graham, president and CEO of Industrial Logic. “Crystal does frame accurate timing as part of their overall M&C offering at earth stations for the broadcast industry, for example, and this will fit neatly into our MaxView Plus earth station network control and element management system.”

      ILC has been fine-tuning its MaxView Plus event manager, among other things, so that a network experiencing an anomaly or failure can be rapidly reconfigured. “This is ideal for things such as diversity site control, which will be increasingly important as Ka-band satellites come into service. Because they are far more weather dependent than existing Ku-band satellites, the M&C systems will have to be more responsive so that Ka-band traffic can be rapidly dispersed between sites,” Graham says. “We created the event manager with the idea that it should be easy to tackle problems that have not even come up yet.”

      By creating so-called virtual elements that might entail anything, such as a virtual alarm system, the operator can customize the look and feel of his or her operation. “A super-macro decision tree, for example, allows the operator to set up decisions in every command level on the tree,” Graham says. “At the same time, the system is designed to correlate alarms. This is especially important when a satellite network experiences a problem and suddenly a zillion alarms go off. The operator must be able to drill down to the root cause instantly, and refining alarm management makes this possible as well.”

      With Service Level Agreements (SLAs) injecting a whole new dimension into network management practices and procedures, tracking each customer’s experience, and then having the ability to verify the traffic flow and overall Quality of Service (QoS) is essential. Report generation with trending is seen as a critical component as a result of more customers trying to launch more services on a particular network.

      “We are making our system cross-platform capable by integrating a Java interface. We try to make our software as versatile as possible,” Graham says. “With Crystal, we can address smaller market segments such as studio management in broadcast facilities where scheduling and ancillary equipment has to be incorporated into an automation platform as part of a larger network management system.”

      Big Server Backlash

      Network and service management does not need to be complex in either a wired or wireless network. That is one of the messages that North Andover, MA-based Oracom Inc. is sending to the industry. Oracom’s approach stresses a solution that can be put in place easily and quickly without lots of expensive servers and associated training.

      “We are also seeing a much broader backlash in general against big server-based applications and monolithic M&C systems. Companies can no longer afford them, and they lack the support personnel to run them as well,” says Tony Viola, Oracom’s vice president of marketing.

      Oracom combines appliance-like hardware with distributed software architecture which features intelligent agents, according to Viola. “We are able to manage legacy and IP-based devices using anything from an SNMP-based management system to an instant messaging (IM) client,” Viola says.

      “For example, we can set a threshold on a high power amplifier (HPA) that identifies a faulty filter, execute remote diagnostics and issue an instant message to support personnel so the filter can be replaced before the HPA goes up in flames,” Viola adds. “Avoiding hard failures and prolonged reboots when support personnel may be four or five hours away is critical.”

      The new Oracom Xpress is described by Viola as the equivalent of an AWACS (USAF Airborne Warning and Command System) for a customer’s network. It consists of a series of XpressCells (an intelligent agent software), according to Viola, along with Xpressserver for such things as event correlation, and Xpressmanager for network control via a graphical user interface (GUI) or IM. XpressCells acquire data and treat any managed object as a virtual IM user.

      “We give operators instant notification and control, long before a conventional management system tells them that something is wrong,” Viola says. “Given the nature of today’s networks, this is extremely important.

      “And as teleport operators in particular are pressed to differentiate themselves in terms of performance and service quality, the ability to manage every aspect of their infrastructure becomes even more important,” Viola adds.

      Hands Free Maneuvers

      At Lanham, MD-based Integral Systems Inc., which has provided primary and backup control software for various satellites over the years, the opportunities may seem endless, but the focus is definitely fixed.

      “In the commercial sector, we are flying a huge number of GEO satellites with shrink-wrapped software,” says Steven Chamberlain, chairman and CEO of Integral Systems. “We proved that this can be done in the commercial market, and we are about to prove it to the military satcom teams as well. Custom builders are dinosaurs, and their time is over.”

      In February 2002, Integral Systems learns if it wins out over TRW for the USAF follow-on to the existing Milstar fleet. Having made it through the first round with intense competition from Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Honeywell, this complete replacement of the military satcom infrastructure looks winnable. And yet, Integral Systems is moving ahead with its own much broader agenda as it awaits the final outcome of this contractual process.

      “Our plan is to move from strictly a command and control (C&C) product line to M&C and signal monitoring. With our acquisition last fall of SAT Corp., we can begin to bundle previously disparate functions, and thus make life a lot easier for satellite operators,” Chamberlain adds.

      Commercial customers who have tapped Integral Systems for tracking, telemetry and control (TT&C) include Loral Skynet, which uses Integral Systems’ Epoch 2000 for its fleet. When the new Telstar 8 arrives in orbit next year the daily ion thruster maneuvers will be controlled by the Epoch 2000 platform.

      “Developing automated ion thruster maneuvers involves another layer, and a much greater emphasis at the operator level on monitoring rather than on any sort of action mode,” says Pete Gaffney, vice president of product development at Integral Systems. “This is a conservative business, and operators are reluctant to take humans completely out of the loop, although we have the core hooks for such operations in Epoch 2000 today.

      “Ion thruster maneuvers are ongoing, and so constant that they are tantamount to a completely hands-off paradigm. Stationkeeping is going to be radically different as these much more efficient thrusters become more widely used, and the size of the satellite will not be a factor. Manual intervention will become an exceptional event, instantly available, but rarely required,” he adds.

      A Whole New Display Concept

      DeWayne Gray, president of M&C Systems in Plano, TX, talks about the whole M&C sector as an evolving entity where there is no end to the list of new features and new products.

      His company’s customers, which include DirecTV Inc.’s Los Angeles Broadcast Center and Castle Rock uplink facility in Colorado, are requesting powerful, flexible, and cost effective virtual controllers tools that the user can easily configure.

      “We can automatically adjust the power, slope, channel, and other power saving modes of a Klystron Power Amplifier (KPA) to match the output of the converter and configuration of any primary chain needing temporary replacement, so the output is characteristically flat and identical,” says Gray. “When you have 30 KPAs with half of them in a power saving mode along with virtual controllers, the facility savings alone quickly pay for the M&C system.”

      As much as browser-based GUIs appeal to the commercial sector, Gray describes a curious set of circumstances.

      “We are being tugged in two different directions. The commercial guys are pushing Web browsers, but some of the government customers will not touch us if we arrive at their door with a Web browser remote interface,” says Gray. “Connecting into an open public network is pretty scary. Even with password protection or encryption at either end, you must remain aware of the adverse consequences of any Web-enabled device.”

      M&C Systems has been using Microsoft Windows for its systems because they enjoy such an overwhelming market share, according to Gray, and operators are quite familiar with it so the cost of training and maintenance is minimal.

      “Windows.Net is going to be a Microsoft software platform in the future, and we expect it to also play a dominant role. We view it as the best platform from which to launch the next generation of our monitoring and control software. The .Net platform will provide a rich set of database support, higher level security, and a more flexible GUI,” says Gray who describes customers as wanting more reporting, trending, and automation in general.

      “Such things as built-in macro-commands, which simplify operators’ ability to quickly issue complex commands, and auto-calibration for telemetry testing are all resulting from a new generation of smarter software which is bordering on expert systems in terms of overall operator guidance,” adds Gray.

      At remote sites, there is a different set of requirements altogether. “The site can be accessed via an inband link or through dedicated or non-dedicated ISDN lines. Either way, the software has to be smart enough to connect the front-end processor to the remote, doing it only when there is an alarm. And it has to happen using minimal bandwidth,” Gray says.

      Managing Converging Networks

      Satellite M&C software providers have always focused on highly scalable and robust solutions that can handle the largest of applications. Salem, NH-based Newpoint Technologies Inc. is now meeting industry requirements to manage converging networks with systems that, in addition to satellite and carrier management, may also include A/V and IP routers, VDSL (very high speed digital subscriber line) gear, ATM switches, and set-top boxes, to name a few.

      “Managing converging networks as a single entity to help operators achieve the level of service they need to achieve is a priority here,” says Dan Ostrouch, director of business development at Newpoint Technologies. “Managing all of these diverse devices includes providing alarm correlation, fault analysis and integration to third party packages such as Remedy for help desk and SLA functions. Other functions such as interfaces to Oracle, and MS ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) are also part of the requirements.”

      “As satellite becomes an integral part of larger systems, we see tremendous growth opportunities by offering an NMS that stretches across all of the network technologies,” says Paul Houle, Newpoint Technologies’ president and CEO.

      Customers want rapid reconfiguration of a system by plant personal and the ability to make complex changes quickly, by using easy to learn and easy to understand tools. This extends to writing their own drivers in certain instances.

      “Free, open and flexible is what they want. If they decide to bring on a new service in the afternoon, they want it operational by the time they leave at the end of the day. That is where things are going, and that is what we have been able to achieve with the Newpoint system,” says Ostrouch.

      Is this the year that marks the true start of a massive network migration to standard device interfaces using Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP)? Perhaps, although Ostrouch estimates that 98 percent of the devices are still supplied with proprietary serial based interfaces.

      “We have the products today to support SNMP manager and agent functions, and we are deploying them on a large scale basis in terrestrial based systems,” says Ostrouch. “Our SNMP capabilities such as auto-discovery and the ability to generate communications drivers automatically will make the management of satellite networks more practical once SNMP- based devices become widely available.”

      Mercury, a completely self-contained manager capable of communicating back to the network operations center (NOC) via serial overhead channel, Ethernet, or dial-up telephone service, is Newpoint’s answer to remote site monitoring applications.

      “Because many of the communications requirements to remote sites include slow communications links, Mercury has data replication built-in. Turn it on and it reads the status of everything connected to it. Only changes are conveyed back to the NOC over the very narrow overhead channel after everything is synchronized,” Ostrouch says.

      Better Solutions

      While the software mentioned here reaches out from deep within the core of the NOC, there is another category of software that is of equal importance. This software has the express purpose of vastly improving the performance of each satellite network as a whole, as well as each feed or delivery subsystem. Higher throughput speeds, and more reliable connections translate into higher revenues for customers and vendors alike. Several companies such as Mentat, Kencast, Skystream Networks, Fourelle Systems, Flash Networks, and UDcast are turbocharging the satellite industry. While they are not the focus of this article, they constitute a major force unto themselves.

      The intention here was not to generate a complete list of satellite software vendors. Each year, that list grows. It is another outgrowth of the enormous talent pool that sustains the satellite industry, and keeps the software engineering competition in high gear.

      Small companies abound. Take Smithtown, NY-based mark-dsquared Inc., for example. They offer a “Network Wizard” software enhancement that provides automatic uplink power control and centralized network modem control. Network Wizard is intended to operate with the Clarent Skyperformer. Others are out there, too. The objective is to just keep coming up with better solutions.

      As the satellite industry continues to evolve, and to maintain itself as the most user friendly and cost effective way to achieve last-mile, remote site and point-to-multipoint connectivity, the pressure is on to create even better network management tools and systems. Fortunately, there is ample evidence that the satellite industry tends to thrive whenever the pressure mounts.

      Peter J. Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia Editor. He lives on Mount Desert Island, ME.

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