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Will IRIS Change The Space Business

by: Mike Armstrong-Smith
Space Newsfeed (http//

Internet router manufacturer Cisco is putting its routers in satellites - will this change the way satellites are used or will it just a fill a niche in the market.


If any one company is at the heart of the Internet it is Cisco which manufactures the routers which power the core of the Internet and the routers used by countless end users across the world. Since the 1990s, Cisco has been investigating the use of routers in spacecraft.

In November 2009 Cisco's 18400 Space Router was launched on the Intelsat 14 satellite to evaluate the benefits and viability of the Internet Routing In Space (IRIS) concept. The idea behind IRIS is that if a router can be placed at the heart of a communications satellite, then the benefits of today's IP oriented world can be extended more effectively to the end user.

Cisco's IRIS testbed was supported by the US Department of Defense, which has had a long standing interest in the development of meshed VSAT technologies, through its Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration (JCTD) program. Unlike most commercial networks which have a star topology, military operational requirements favour a meshed topology in many cases, with operational units needing to communicate with command centres and with other operational units often in a rapidly changing dynamic environment.

There is a clear benefit for the military in having a high performance, flexible meshed network that allows mobile users to communicate easily and using a wide range of commercial or quasi-commercial applications.

The really big question is whether the IRIS concept can be extended into mainstream satellite communications. If that happens, IRIS will be a game changer.

Hardware and Software

A conventional communications satellite payload consist of dozens of repeaters each of which receive signals from uplinking earth stations, change the carrier frequencies, filter out unwanted signals, amplify the required signals and then transmit them to further earth stations. This type of repeater is often called a “bent pipe” because it does not change the transmitted signal in any way except for shifting its frequency and amplifying it. Nearly all communications satellites are of this type.

As an alternative some satellites demodulate the received signals, route the signals to an appropriate downlink according to address information contained in the signals, remodulate the signals and then transmit them. This technique is known as on board processing. The Iridium system is an example of a satellite network which uses this on board processing technology.

Cisco have taken the concept of on board processing one step further by including an IP  router in the satellite payload. This allows much greater flexibility in the handling of multiple signal types. It also uses open standards.



The IRIS Network

Satellites have been used for several years to connect remote users to the Internet (such as WildBlue in the USA and Tooway in Europe), but the Cisco approach takes this further, offering seamless integration with the Internet.

The IRIS router and associated modems was designed and built by SEAKR Engineering, a specialised manufacturer of space hardware with many years of experience. The router is based on SEAKR's fifth generation PowerPC processor platform and the modems are software radios based on SEAKR's ReConfigurable Computing hardware platform. The router runs Cisco's IOS Software which supports a full range of services including routing (Ipv4 and Ipv6), QoS, security, VPN and multicast.


Cisco 18400 Space Router with Modem Interface Chassis

Cisco 18400 Space Router Route Processing Engine (RPE) Specification
Software Cisco IOS Software Release 12.4T(24)
Throughput 250 Mbps
Memory 1 GB SDRAM
1 GB Flash NVRAM
Protocols IPv4, IPv6, OSPF, Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), TCP, User Datagram Protocol (UDP), Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), Ipsec, RADIUS, Cisco Unified Communications Express (CME)
MIBs more than 100 Cisco IOS Software MIBs
Network Management in band management through Cisco IOS Software
out of band management through spacecraft TT&C
Interfaces Serialised Gigabit Ethernet (2 ports with embedded MAC)
Dimensions (h x w x d) 23 x 36 x 20 cm
Mass 10 kg
Power 32 W
100 VDC ±5%
Reliability 90%

Cisco 18400 Space Router Modem Interface Card (MIC) Specification
Throughput up to 3 x 36 MHz channels per MIC
50 Mbps per MIC
Memory 1 GB SDRAM
Performance up to 5 Msps
Carrier symbol rates downlink: multichannel – 2.5 and 5 Msps
uplink: multichannel – 1.25, 2.5 and 5 Msps
Maximum carriers per transponder downlink: 1 x 2.5 Msps and 5 x 5 Msps
uplink: 2 x 2.5 Msps, 2 x 2.5 Msps and 4 x 5 Msps
Modulation QPSK
FEC Viterbi and Reed-Solomon
Access downlink: multifrequency TDMA
uplink: multifrequency TDMA
Uplink timing, frequency and power control performed by terminals
Network Management out of band management through spacecraft TT&C
Dimensions (h x w x d) 23 x 36 x 43 cm
Mass 25 kg
Power 177 W
100 VDC ±5%
Reliability 90%

A feature of the router is that it is possible to upload software updates to the router to continue to improve the performance of the router and to add new features.

The software radio in the Modem Interface Cards is also reconfigurable and is programmed to work with the waveforms for Viasat's Linkway VSAT terminals.


The use of an IRIS based network offers three main performance advantages over conventional satellite networks.

Firstly, because the connection is directly from terminal to terminal, it uses a single hop through the satellite. In reality, this is the weakest advantage because virtually all meshed VSAT systems also employ a single hop through the satellite. The biggest benefit in this respect from IRIS is that all networks are meshed and operate using a single hop through the satellite. Using a single hop through the satellite minimises the transit delay for the link (known as latency) which improves link performance.

Secondly, demodulating and remodulating the signal in the satellite payload effectively splits the uplink from the downlink allowing each half of the link to be optimised independently. This means that smaller antennas are required for transmission and reception, or that less transmit power is required for the uplink and downlink.

The third and final advantage of IRIS is much harder to quantify but is probably by far the most reaching. IRIS makes it easier to rapidly, reliably and securely set up connections in a changing communications environment. Since IRIS extends an IP-based broadband network out into the users networks at the remote sites it allows the use of the myriad web applications that have been developed for use on the Internet. The use of a unified IP-based network that treats all data the same way just makes so many tasks so much easier.


As it is currently deployed, IRIS is just a rather clever way of improving the usability of meshed VSATs.

Whilst meshed VSAT only constitute a small percentage of the total number of VSATs installed worldwide, they are generally the most challenging technically because they are often used to support multiple services including voice, data, video and internet between different remote terminals at the same time. Anything that makes implementing meshed VSATs easier is a big bonus. IRIS takes things a step further by taking the switching function from the terminals and moving it to the satellite. This simple step, along with the use of open standards, greatly simplifies the design and operation of the meshed VSAT terminals. For commercial users IRIS can offer reduced costs and improved flexibility, but for military and government users IRIS could offer a massive operational advantage.

Most VSAT networks have a large, complex and expensive hub which communicates with a large number (sometimes more than 10,000) of small, cheap terminals. This star topology for networks is extremely effective whenever lots of terminals have relatively low capacity transactional based communications with a large data centre. Lottery networks and point of sale networks are typical of this type of application and are generally the larger types of networks that use hubbed VSATs. In its current incarnation IRIS is not optimised to support multiple star topology VSAT networks, but the potential is certainly there. Modern hubbed VSAT terminals are cheap but sophisticated, offering a high level of performance for the price with little scope for cost reduction through the use of IRIS. The hubs themselves are a different story. The IRIS concept would allow the moving of much of the complexity of the hub into the satellite, with a consequent cost saving and with a VSAT hub typically costing up to US$ 1 million, cost savings could be significant.

Is It Commercial?

Cisco has just contracted with TeleCommunication Systems Inc to commercialise IRIS now that the demonstration phase of the project has been successfully completed ( This is the first big test of the commercial viability of IRIS. If TeleCommunication Systems can sell IRIS to commercial and government clients it will be a clear indicator that IRIS has a future.

The next big test will be to see if one of the big four satellite operators (Eutelsat, Inmarsat, Intelsat and SES) will buy the concept and include an IRIS based payload on one of their future satellites. These satellite operators are extremely conservative and will require a great deal of persuasion to include such a commercially risky payload.

Three key factors will make it difficult to sell IRIS to these satellite operators:
  • Most of the income of Eutelsat, Intelsat and SES comes from TV transmission. VSAT services only generate a small part of their income, possibly making it difficult to justify the risk of including an innovative payload.
  • These satellite operators are currently completing a phase of replacing satellites in their inventories and are slowing down their pace of procuring satellites. For several years there will be few launch opportunities with these operators.
  • Eutelsat has already experimented with on-board processing with its Skyplex payloads which were included on three satellites, two of which are still operational. Clearly, Eutelsat has not found Skyplex to be a commercial success because it has not included Skyplex payloads in its recent satellite procurements.
Whilst the major satellite operators are probably not prepared to commit to an IRIS based payload today, other options are available.

Many satellite operators now offer to carry hosted payloads – payloads that are owned by a third party and which are generally independent of the principal payloads on the satellite. IRIS was included on Intelsat 14 as a hosted payload paid for by the US military. Presumably Intelsat and other operators would be prepared to carry further IRIS hosted payloads if a suitable sponsor could be found.

Perhaps the best way to get further IRIS payloads flown is to get them included on military communications satellites. The US Department of Defense already has experience of using IRIS and its advantages and so is probably the easiest potential customer to persuade.

It may also be possible to persuade the DoD, or another major military customer, to act as an anchor client for IRIS services bought from one of the big four satellite operators. The military are big customers of commercial satellite operators and have considerable influence. A military backer with deep pockets is would probably convince one of the big four satellite operators to include an IRIS payload as a commercial venture.

Whichever route to commercialisation it takes, Cisco should not expect an easy ride. On the whole satellite operators and users are happy with bent pipe transponders for most applications because they are relatively cheap, reliable, very flexible and they are comfortable with it as a technology.

The Future

The IRIS concept is interesting because, although it is currently applicable to improving the performance of meshed VSAT networks, it potentially has a range of other, quite diverse, applications.


In developed countries typically a few percent of the population are unable to receive good broadband internet connections primarily because they are too far away from a broadband exchange. Several satellite broadband operators provide services to consumers and businesses unable to get good terrestrial broadband including WildBlue in the USA and Tooway in Europe using star VSAT technology over bent pipe satellite transponders.

At first sight it would appear that IRIS, being IP based, would be a good fit with broadband satellite services. Placing a router on the satellite transfers much of the complexity of the hub earth station to the satellite, greatly reducing the hub earth station cost. Similarly, the use on board regeneration effectively splits the satellite link in two allowing lower uplink powers from user terminals which translates into cheaper terminals – although the saving may be only a few dollars per user terminal, this adds up when networks contain several hundred thousand terminals.

Satellite TV

For over two decades television broadcasting has been the killer application for satellite communications, paying for the majority of bandwidth available. Every time it has looked like demand is beginning to saturate, a new market (such as Eastern Europe) or a new technology (such as High Definition or 3D) comes along using more and more bandwidth.

In parallel with this, the background to broadcasting is changing along with viewers expectations and as a result viewing habits are evolving. Broadcast TV has become interactive to a certain degree  and the internet is now an established delivery route for television from broadcasters and a popular way of interacting with programmes (such as playing quizzes on line whilst the quiz is being broadcast). The much predicted convergence of broadcast TV with the internet is slowly happening now in front of our eyes The convergence is not happening with internet enabled televisions as many expected, but is more like a merging of traditional television networks with internet delivery as an option for live broadcast and video on demand. It is clear that television is in the middle of a fundamental change – what isn't clear is what the end result will be, nor is it clear what route will be taken.

Television and the internet are becoming inexorably intertwined in a way that cannot be predicted with any certainty at the moment. IRIS type payloads may have an important role in a hybrid television/internet world but it is currently too early to say what this will be. As an example of what might be possible, an IRIS based payload could be used for conventional broadcast television but (if it had a large amount of storage) could also provide video on demand services with little additional bandwidth requirement on the uplink.

For the moment, however, we must wait to see how broadcasting technology and viewers habits develop.

Earth Observation and Scientific Satellites

IRIS is an interesting concept in that although it has been developed for use in communications satellites, it can also be used in other types of satellites as well.

As more and more of what we do is becoming centred on the internet, the web is becoming all pervasive and is becoming the preferred way to exercise control over equipment and experiments, to retrieve data and to then process and distribute that data. To a certain degree this trend is also apparent in the satellite business with internet based applications being used to control and retrieve data from earth observation and scientific satellites.

Cisco's Space Router is already suitable for use on non-communications satellites. It is equipped with 2 Serialised Gigabit Ethernet ports which can be connected to any on board instruments which are similarly equipped to establish spacecraft based LAN for instrument control and data retrieval.

A precursor of the current Space Router called CLEO (Cisco router in Low Earth Orbit) was launched on the UK-DMC satellite in September 2003 and has already performed this function to a limited extent.

Satellite Operations

Taking this concept a step further, there is no fundamental reason why control cannot be extended beyond the onboard instruments to the whole spacecraft, replacing many of the traditional functions of the TT&C system.

Such a web based control system would need to be secure and reliable, but military grade security and high levels of resilience are quite achievable with the appropriate network design.

Manned Spaceflight

Human spaceflight brings its own unique requirements and possibilities but it also brings a strong need for LANs to transfer data, for communications, for running experiments and retrieving results. Manned spacecraft are a little like a hybrid of the flight deck of an aircraft, an office and a laboratory.

Current manned spacecraft were designed before the internet became all pervasive. But as the next generation of manned spacecraft are built there will be an increasing requirement for space qualified routers, LAN components and computers.

There will soon be a shift in type of person flying in space. Within a couple of years Virgin Galactic will be flying a varied mix of tourists and researchers to the edge of space. The tourists will be making the trip for the view and the experience but the researchers will be taking experiments which will require support. The demand is only just beginning to be seen, but in ten or twenty years could be a major part of the space industry.

Bigelow Aerospace is making a bigger step and is well on the way towards launching private space stations – space hotels – where governments or research organisations can send their own astronauts to perform their own experiments. This is happening without the direct involvement of any of the major space agencies but is a purely commercial venture. Such orbiting facilities will require high performance communications which will be built like the infrastructure in a modern office or laboratory – that is they will be built around LANs and routers.

The Importance of IRIS

IRIS is an important step because it proves that a high performance router can operated satisfactorily in the space environment. Whilst there is no real reason that this would not be the case proving it has value.

In the modern world the internet is everywhere and many of us spend several hours per day either directly connected to the internet or relying on it for business or information.

IP based networks have proved to be a reliable and secure way of providing connectivity for a wide range of data types including data, voice and video. It is entirely reasonable to expect that this will be exploited for satellite communications where IP based networks can ease the complexity of performing many communications tasks. The flexibility of IP based networks allows them to be used as the backbone for controlling data, equipment and even complete satellites. Placing routers on spacecraft will greatly enhance the effectiveness and ease of doing this – this fact alone makes space borne routers a prerequisite for the future. At the moment, in the ultra conservative space business, there is little demand but times are changing

The proven capability of IRIS makes Cisco a major player in this nascent market.

An Interview With Greg Pelton, Cisco

In an email interview, Greg Pelton, Senior Director of Cisco Internet Routing In Space shared his views about the potential for IRIS based services and how IRIS may develop.

Space Newsfeed: IRIS has clear military applications. Which non-military markets do you see as important?

Greg Pelton: Analyst John Mazur with international technology consultancy Ovum says that IRIS takes IP ubiquity to a whole new level and that with a few more IRIS launches, IP will be available anywhere, anytime on the planet, although bandwidth may be limited. We have seen significant interest in IRIS technology from commercial customers who would benefit from the technology’s seamless integration with enterprise networks, on-demand access to bandwidth, integrated voice, data and video functionality.

Cisco has designed IRIS as a commercial product and is available to both civil and government customers to enable access the Internet anytime, anywhere and from any device, for a variety of markets and applications.

One example of how the technology will work is emergency workers responding to a natural disaster. If the terrestrial infrastructure is destroyed, you can’t get a cell phone signal to save your life – or anyone else’s. The hurricane, earthquake or flood has leveled cellular towers for miles. What do you do? With IRIS, the satellite can provision voice service for emergency workers and connect police with the fire department with the hospital, all through the satellite. No traditional telephone network is required to route the call.

Space Newsfeed: Commercial meshed VSAT networks have not been adopted anything like as much as hubbed VSATs. Do you think will IRIS change perceptions enough to see meshed networks become more common?

Greg Pelton: IRIS combines the benefits of mesh with the efficiency and simplicity of hubbed VSAT. IRIS moves the hub to the satellite and every terminal is only half a hop away from the hub. This means that a single hop between any two terminals and any terminal or combination of terminals can be a terrestrial network gateway.

There is no need for a pre-configured mesh because the satellite is now part of an IP network which enables routing between any points. Based on our business discussions to date, it seems we are already changing market perceptions.

Space Newsfeed: IRIS was flown on Intelsat 14 as a hosted payload. Are there plans to fly IRIS routers as part of commercial payloads? Is Intelsat interested? Or Eutelsat? Or SES?

Greg Pelton: The first space router was launched on-board Intelsat 14, a geostationary communications satellite as a hosted payload. Hosted payloads enable the planning and implementation of space missions more quickly compared to the time it takes to procure an entire government funded satellite -- typically 24 months versus 7 to 15 years. Placing a hosted payload on a commercial satellite costs a fraction of the amount of building, launching, and operating an entire satellite. This also has the benefit of helping commercial satellite operators close their business case for a new satellite earlier and put more total capacity on orbit. It is a win-win for both sides.

While we haven't announced any future flights, there is definite interest from many customers. In the future we'd like to see IRIS payloads being part of the bus for all satellites, fully integrated into the commercial payload.

Space Newsfeed: On board processing has been seen as the way forward to optimise satellite transmission since the 1980s but has been largely ignored by satellite operators. What is different about IRIS that will change the game?

Greg Pelton: The limitation of on board processing in the past was that it needed to stay relevant for the 15 year lifespan of the satellite. This was a challenge given the future is unpredictable and satellite configurations were fixed once in orbit.

IRIS changes the model because the function of the Space Router is completely software defined, it runs the same software as the routers in the terrestrial Internet.

Over time as functions in the network change, new software is uploaded to the satellite at the same time as it is deployed in the rest of the network. With this functionality, the satellite stays evergreen and customers can be confident that their end to end network will evolve with their business.

Space Newsfeed: IRIS is currently configured to be part of a communications payload. Can the same technology be integrated with the TT&C system of the spacecraft to enable better web based spacecraft operations? Can it be integrated with the On Board Data Handling of EO satellites, scientific satellites and manned spacecraft to simplify data transmission and experiment control?

Greg Pelton: Yes, we believe IRIS is broadly applicable to all of these applications. In a data handling or scientific satellite, IRIS provides a standards-based method of integrating disparate payloads with the communication paths to the ground.

Over time, more and more control systems in the industry have moved to IP. Telecom, banking, defense, critical infrastructure, factories, etc. are all run on IP today. These networks require both reliable performance and top-level security, and IP has been able to deliver all of this.  It is a logical extension to include satellite TT&C systems, but it will be some time before the satellite industry is ready to adopt the model. One step at a time.

Space Newsfeed: Do you have a feel for the mass, dimensions and power consumption of an IRIS type router which could carry all the traffic of a typical comsat?

Greg Pelton: We have a pretty good understanding of what it will take but don't believe that any satellite will be completely IRIS based in the next few years.

It will take time for the market to fully understand the benefits of IRIS. In the near term, we are more likely to see a subset of a satellite's mission being IRIS based.

Since IRIS is software based, we can rely on the price/performance improvements of the computer industry to increase the Space Router capabilities over time. Each year, Moore's Law will reduce the size, weight and power requirements and increase the performance of Space Routers.

Space Newsfeed: You are working with Telecommunications Systems to commercialise IRIS on Intelsat 14. How do you see this playing out? It is very early in the process, but are you seeing much interest from operators and users?

Greg Pelton: The next big milestone for IRIS is moving from testing to full commercial service on Intelsat 14, which is happening this year. Production service are set to start in May, 2011. We have pent up demand for a production IRIS service and it is important to get this capability into the hands of the customers who need it. We continue to work with industry partners to introduce proven networking standards into proprietary satellite systems, and we are in discussions with a number of customers that should result in the sale and launch of future Space Routers.

Space Newsfeed: Broadcast TV is converging with the internet. Can IRIS be scaled up to carry broadcast TV to offer a DTH service?

Greg Pelton: IRIS is very relevant for video services and has a role to play with broadcast TV. Standard broadcast is not IP based today and works very well over satellite.

The move to IPTV in terrestrial networks is driven by the need to differentiate for end-customers. This means on-demand, two-way and interactive services; for example, pay-per-view or Cisco Umi interactive video service. IRIS enables this two-way relationship with the end users and a rich set of differentiated services.

Background Reading

Cisco 18400 Datasheet
Cisco Space Router - Technical Overview
Next Generation Global Services At-A-Glance
Overview of IRIS and Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration
IRIS Global Satellite Coverage
The JCTD Military Utility Assessment

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