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March 16, 2012

Satellite 2012: TCS Manages In-orbit Cisco router, Upgrades to IPv6

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Washington DC - TeleCommunication Systems (News - Alert) (TCS) announced it has upgraded the software on a Cisco router to IPv6 -- one currently parked 22,500 miles above the earth onboard a communications satellite. Hosted on Intelsat (News - Alert) 14, TCS OS-IRIS (Internet Routing in Space) is the first commercial service offering of a Cisco-enabled IRIS managed satellite service.

Located at 45 degrees West longitude, Intelsat 14 has a mixture of C-band and Ku-band transponders to provide coverage of most of the U.S., all of South America, West and North Africa, and most of Europe. Putting a router onboard the satellite enables the creation of MPLS-based services between transponders and regions, so users can set up single hop connections between points, rather than having to use a “dumb pipe” approach requiring data to be sent through one transponder to a ground station for routing and retransmission via a second hop.

Each raw-speed “hop” using a geosynchronous satellite adds roughly 250 ms of latency, so doing the routing in space -- rather than on the ground -- removes a double hop and all the intermediate steps required to get data from point A to point B.

Amazingly, the hardware is a pretty much a mid-range Cisco (News - Alert) router, but ruggedized for incorporation into a satellite and operation in space. An off-the-shelf Cisco router isn’t built to have radiation tolerance or avoid errors due to random cosmic rays, so a third-party had to effectively build a Cisco router from scratch using space-qualified electronics. 

The end product, the Cisco 18400 Space Router, operates just like a regular router, using the same Cisco OS software as its millions and millions ground-bound counterparts. Potential users such as the U.S. government and commercial providers get an RF-based MPLS service without having to fret about extensive markups for customized software built into the price tag (News - Alert). TCS can provide the downlink satellite gear, handing off a full-duplex poor of bandwidth to the customer as IP, and the whole thing is setup and managed as an IP-VPN, so you can do everything you can do with an IP-VPN. Customers can add more terminals or add more bandwidth as needed.

A spokesperson for TCS noted putting a router on the satellite made it easy to connect between C-band and Ku-band transponders, as well as Ku-band transponders serving different regions.   Since it’s a Cisco router, there’s no special handling necessary from an IP/network management standpoint. And OS-IRIS looks like an MPLS cloud, it’s easy to setup and break down connections between users, regardless of where they are in a particular band or transponder footprint. Maximum full-duplex bandwidth throughput for a specific site is around 20 Mbps. 

In the future, routers in space are likely to become standard issue due to the characteristics of Ka-band. A Ka-band RF architecture delivers much higher bandwidth than a Ku-band one, but higher speed comes at the need for a narrower beam footprint and lots of smaller beams.   In such a design, having a router onboard the satellite becomes a necessity -- not a luxury -- to avoid having to double-hop data between multiple beams.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

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