Cloud computing – pushing an organization’s data away from on-premise servers to the virtual environment – is commonplace today for enterprises, with nearly seven in 10 businesses already using cloud technology in one capacity or another, and many reporting dramatic jumps in efficiency and revenue growth
Now, cloud is targeting the high-stakes satellite market as cloud innovators seek early-market advantage by offering cloud solutions to a sector poised to redefine broadband connectivity. Led by the big three cloud solutions providers, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon Web Services (AWS), cloud firms are forging significant alliances with leading satellite companies.
In the past year, SpaceX signed a deal with Google Cloud to provide cloud serves over its Starlink Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) mega-constellation; SES expanded its partnership with Microsoft Azure to deliver cloud at scale over the company’s new O3b mPOWER Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) constellation; and Telesat selected Canadian-based CloudOps to develop a hybrid cloud platform for its LEO satellite network Lightspeed.
These developments underscore how the satellite cloud race is taking companies closer and closer to the edge – the place where connectivity and data insights can reach end users quicker, leading to a better experience and competitive advantage.
“There's a lot of movement by satellite players and cloud players alike to improve the access to ground stations and bring newer business models into the picture,” says Shivaprakash Muruganandham, consultant for NSR who authored the Cloud Computing via Satellite 2nd Edition report.
NSR expects the cloud-satellite market will reach $21 billion and generate 233 exabytes of traffic by 2030. Muruganandham says about half of that revenue will come from data downlink Earth Observation (EO), with the next biggest chunk from satcom.
NSR forecasts that cloud-based services in the EO market over the next decade represents a $10 billion opportunity. The other two markets, big data analytics and orbital infrastructure, whether providing storage or edge computing solutions in space, are still emerging.
Amazon Web Services (AWS) is working to make data from space more accessible by leveraging its cloud capabilities. Clint Crosier, director of AWS Aerospace and Satellite Solutions division, said during SATELLITE 2021’s Future Space Digital Forum in July that the industry’s move toward a combined ‘space-cloud nexus’ is akin to “a new industry within the industry.”
“We are entering an age where the biggest challenge for satellite customers will be effectively collecting, formatting, analyzing, processing and distributing these massive volumes of data,” Crosier tells Via Satellite in an interview. “We believe advances in space will continue to be driven largely by innovation and best practices from the commercial space industry, which will largely be driven by cloud technologies.”
As a further sign of the cloud’s growing role in space, Microsoft became the first cloud customer for SES’s next-generation MEO system – O3b mPOWER – set to launch later this year. Microsoft will buy managed services from SES for Azure and will also support Microsoft’s Azure Orbital ground station solutions business. SES is co-locating four O3b mPOWER ground stations at or near Azure data centers.
SES CEO Steve Collar said in a press briefing on Aug. 17 that SES’s placement of gateways near Microsoft’s largest data centers will ensure its customers “are only ever one short hop away from the cloud.” Microsoft, in turn, will access the MEO network to improve the resiliency and redundancy of the system.
“As more critical workloads move to the cloud, Microsoft will leverage our MEO constellations — both current and upcoming — to deliver additional network diversity, service resiliency and gigabit connectivity at its core network,” the company stated.
It’s All About the End User Experience
The days of satellite providers relying solely on a wholesale connectivity model are becoming obsolete in a cloud-driven market, says Maddison Long, vice president of Products for CloudOps. Such a model keeps satellite players too far removed from the end user. Creating better customer experiences will drive this future – an area that cloud companies excel at.
“What’s made the cloud providers successful will also make the satellite providers successful and that is their relentless focus on the end user experience,” says Long. “Both as an individual consumer and as a business, you’re really dependent on both the connectivity and the cloud experience working in tandem.”
And that means engaging customers directly and building massive developer ecosystems that know how to build applications on their clouds.
“At AWS, 90 percent of what we do is driven by our customers telling us what matters most to them,” says Crosier. “The other 10 percent is us helping them imagine the art of the possible and innovating on their behalf.”
For AWS customers, that means accessing their data anywhere, whether at ground stations, operations centers, on satellites, or in space, and converting that data into analysis-ready and actionable information. With Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML), users can transform and analyze vast amounts of data very quickly, says Crosier, who is seeing increasing demand for virtual mission operations, edge computing, image processing, intelligence analytics, and secure satellite connectivity.
Edge Computing is Key
Many innovators see edge computing – defined as bringing computing and data storage closer to the sources of data to improve response times and save bandwidth – as key to creating richer user experiences while handling the growing data processing demands coming from new constellations in LEO and MEO. Gartner predicts by 2022 that about 75 percent of all will need analysis and action at the edge, and by 2028, edge computing is expected to be an $800 billion market opportunity.
Naeem Altaf, IBM distinguished engineer and CTO of Space Tech for IBM Cloud, asserts, “At the end of the day it’s all about data. Data has gravity – wherever it sits, it’s hard to move.”
For Altaf, the ultimate edge is in the orbit of the satellite itself. “If you are doing a lot of imaging and know how to minimize the movement of raw data, you can only send the data that is actionable.”
And that will require the next generation of computing power on satellites, Altaf emphasizes. “If we can get more computing power on the satellite, the more work you can do right there,” he says.
The explosion of Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud requirements in LEO has also highlighted the need for more agile and intelligent smallsat constellations capable of serving different sensing, imaging, and other data-gathering applications simultaneously.
Dennis Gatens, co-founder and CEO of LEOcloud, a cloud infrastructure and service provider, agreed. “Data in motion results in latency and is expensive. Edge computing will drive competitive and operational advantages by moving from a centralized architecture where data is being backhauled at high volumes at significant cost and latency.”
Ecosystem of Partners Poised to Deliver Edge Services
LEOcloud’s planned Space Edge LEO services embrace a hybrid cloud option to deliver edge computing as close as possible to the sources and users of the data.
“We're about bringing public cloud services to space,” says Gatens, referring to services provided by public cloud providers whether it be IBM, AWS, Google, or Microsoft. His company has partnered with Leaf Space of Europe and Red Hat, IBM’s open-source software subsidiary, to build out its service. Early users include customers in the oil and gas and government sectors.
“The real path forward is enabling public cloud services as they exist today on Earth in space, so that they simply are another hybrid cloud option to a customer and end user,” Gatens says.
IBM is working with LEOcloud as it seeks to bring lowest-latency cloud services to the space edge and ultimately to LEO.
“An ecosystem of partners is finding it mutually beneficial to collaborate and deliver cloud capabilities,” says Gatens. “Ground station providers want to work with us because we’re bringing them customers. We’re bringing demand for their services. Satellite providers are the same. With cloud service providers we enable them to have an edge compute presence at all their ground station endpoints.”
Gatens says a key unknown facing the industry is the scope of integration that providers will embrace. One of LEOcloud’s partners, Leaf Space, is a European ground station network provider currently leveraging Google Cloud as its main cloud provider.
Giovanni Pandolfi Bortoletto, Leaf Space's co-founder and chief strategy officer, says satellite operators are starting to use cloud services for commercial purposes. He notes that half of Leaf Space’s capacity is going to IoT application services, including Earth Observation, while the other half supports general access.
Founded in 2014, Leaf Space’s mission is to simplify space access with global infrastructure that satellite operators can use as a service. Currently the company operates a network of 10 Ground Station as a Service stations across Europe and New Zealand.
“We are cloud-provider agnostic,” says Pandolfi, who attributes the shift to cloud to the increasing number of small satellite providers who see the value of cloud since they lack a built-out infrastructure. In contrast, “space agencies or more institutional operators which have made significant infrastructure investments in data centers,” he says. “We see cloud services as an enabling technology — it’s less capital investment.”
Building Cloud Infrastructure in Space
Several cloud executives expressed excitement for the future orbital applications enabled by cloud and edge computing, which they called “a mobile data center in space.” For these cloud advocates, the satellite industry’s future looks bright when it comes to leveraging cloud technology, both to democratize connectivity and to enable human exploration further into space.
“There will be a permanent presence on the Moon within five years – maybe sooner— and beyond that there’s Mars. The need for edge computing is clear for driving the value of AI and analytics,” says Gatens of LEOCloud. “Going forward to cislunar and beyond, you cannot be backhauling all this data to Earth. You need real-time access to AI and analytics workloads for decision making.”
Altaf agreed, adding, “I think we’re going to take the edge to the next level into orbit.”
Advances in space will continue to be driven largely by “innovation and best practices of the commercial space sector, which will largely be driven by cloud technologies,” says AWS's Crosier, who stressed that cloud and space providers need to continue to collaborate and invest in innovation and workforce development for this future to be fully realized. VS