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Cisco's new-market ambitions extend into orbit

Stephen Lawson | July 7, 2009
The company expects satellite-based routers to change global communication

That capacity is needed as users demand higher performance for new forms of content, especially video, Pelton said. And satellite broadband providers are already converting their land-based backhaul networks to IP, so they want to extend it across their infrastructure, he added.

Cisco already has one IP router in space. About five years ago, the company modified one of its Mobile Access Routers and sent it into orbit on a scientific satellite. Cisco has used that router for experiments, but it has little capacity and not enough power available to operate full time, Pelton said.

The real test begins with the launch of a purpose-built device that is already in the IS-14, a major communications satellite from satellite operator Intelsat, awaiting a launch scheduled for the end of this year. IS-14 originally was set to go up in the first quarter of this year, but the date was pushed back by overall launch delays at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Cisco said. Once IS-14 is in orbit, the U.S. government will experiment with the router for three months, after which carriers and private enterprises will test it for about a year, Pelton said.

A space-based router can't be built from inexpensive, off-the-shelf components, Pelton said. Everything down to the processors themselves has to be built to withstand large amounts of radiation over an expected life span of 15 years, so Cisco turned to specialized component providers. Cooling is also a problem, despite the extreme cold of the vacuum of space, because there are no convection currents to move heat away from the router. Therefore, the router effectively needs to have a heat sink that makes contact with outer space itself, Pelton said.

Like other Cisco routers, the IRIS router can be managed remotely, Pelton said. But because it will be impossible to make a service call in person, there is extra redundancy built in. It's actually two routers in one, with one unit for redundancy, and includes two separate modem devices, also for redundancy. The whole package measures about 24 inches (61 centimeters) by 18 inches by 18 inches, he said. It's one part of a satellite the size of a school bus and is connected to just three of the more than 60 transponders, or antennas, on the satellite, he said.

Cisco believes the router will have a throughput of about 100Mbps once in space, a small figure for Earth-based routers, unprecedented in orbit. It will have Cisco's full IOS (Internetworking Operating System) software. It also includes IPSec (IP Security) capability for encrypting traffic.

Power is also an issue. Despite the fact that this type of satellite typically operates on 5,000 to 7,000 watts of power from its solar panels, only a small fraction of that is available to the router, Pelton said.


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