Transport Virtualization: The Necessary Change in Satellite Communications

While addressing the Assembly Hall of Paulskirche in Frankfurt, Germany in 1963, an important moment for post-WWII Trans-Atlantic Cooperation, President John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” Kennedy’s words left a profound mark on his audience in Frankfurt and continue to offer meaning in the world today.

The satellite communications industry has seen plenty of change, from Kennedy’s time when we were barely bouncing Radio Frequency signals off of the moon, through today, as we prepare for the emergence of mega-constellations of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites intended to deliver extreme levels of 6G connectivity to a future Internet of Things (IoT).

During the last six decades, humanity has observed the computer processing technology pendulum swing back and forth between centralized processing on a mainframe, to localized processing on a Personal Computer, then to a thin client with centralized data, and back again to a localized information based personal data assistant. Most recently we have witnessed the maturation of Cloud computing delivered by the industry’s technology giants like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft.

What is causing this latest computing trend, and what does it foretell about the future of the satellite communications industry? Considering the enormous growth and interest in cloud-based computing services, the answers lie in the problems cloud computing solves that prior iterations of computing technology could not. One such answer is the highly scaled and automated transformation of data into actionable information and intelligence, and an underpinning of this answer is linked to shared processing resources and resiliency.

We live in a time of immense data ingest. We have learned how to create, capture, process, and use data, at least at a very rudimentary and individual level. Through Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) we are now learning how to automatically compare our data sets to other disparate data sets, optimize the processing of that collection, and provide more intelligent and even predictive insights to the consumer. The problem is that there is so much data to be processed from so many sources that personal computers or localized infrastructures cannot handle the task.

Solving this problem has led to the emergence of High-Performance Computing (HPC) solutions from processing technologists like Intel and Xilinx. High-Performance Computing involves a marriage between a traditional Central Processing Unit (CPU) and a hardware acceleration device designed to ease the burden of highly repetitive tasks upon the CPU. This combination has led to computer processing power that is 14 times that of traditional CPU-only solutions. While generating 14 times traditional computing horsepower is a significant accomplishment, it pales in comparison to what is necessary to accomplish the level of data processing and information generation required in the future. Enter distributed, on-demand shared resources for raw processing power and storage (a.k.a. cloud computing), and the result is a multiplicative impact on what is already enhanced processing power of a single HPC. With the sort of horsepower that cloud computing offers, data and networks that once required individual purpose-built components for data processing, storage, switching, routing, firewalls, intrusion detection, monitoring, and so forth now rely on these functions as applications in a much more scalable physical architecture.

Much the same can be said for the future of the satellite communications industry. Instead of deploying ever greater quantities of disparate modems, routers, interference mitigation (IM) boxes, monitoring tools, antenna controllers, edge analytics devices, encryption solutions, and other redundant network devices — all of these capabilities may now be instantiated as applications running on common hardware reducing the Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP) for the user, while increasing flexibility and accelerating employment of the latest innovations.

The replacement of these purpose-built satellite communications devices is now possible through a means called Transport Virtualization. Simply defined, Transport Virtualization is the abstraction of real-time continuous processing applications from legacy purpose-built hardware to be instantiated on a heterogeneous computing platform (i.e. an HPC) using portable high-level programming languages.

High-Performance Computing involves a marriage between a traditional Central Processing Unit (CPU) and a hardware acceleration device.

The satellite industry has made substantial gains in the use of Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) processors for certain functions of networking and management of devices within communications systems, however layers 1 and 2 of the traditional Wide Area Network (WAN) Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model have lagged. This has mainly been due to the raw limits of computing horsepower, however with the arrival of HPCs thanks to the cloud computing industry combined with an architecture supportive of real-time continuous processing applications the door to the satellite connectivity equivalency of cloud networking has been opened. Software Defined Radios (SDRs) have offered promise in this area, however these solutions are largely based upon proprietary hardware and limited applications that are developed using non-portable low-level hardware specific code. Flexibility and speed of innovation remain the benefit shortfalls of SDRs.

In this new paradigm of Transport Virtualization, functions previously supported by purpose-built hardware devices are now replaced by all software functions. Cloud and HPC environments now support new coding standards that allow high-level coding languages to replace low-level hardware languages empowering rapid development and innovation. With the ability to rapidly innovate, it is now possible to focus on operability across a plurality of disparate networks without the worrying about the specific hardware necessary for any. Once thought impossible, communications across Geostationary Orbit (GEO), LEO, and Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO), without the limitations of proprietary infrastructure are becoming a reality, and a simple solution that allows users to rapidly move in and out of these networks has been desired many years.

Through Transport Virtualization, users can maximize their selection and use of a mix of applications that best suits their connectivity needs. Transport Virtualization is an ecosystem that recognizes that no one vendor cannot invent, develop, or create every solution desirable for a communications infrastructure very much the way smartphone ecosystem developers have recognized that they could not create every desirable application for their customers. Transport Virtualization is about less is more in terms of hardware, but more is more in terms of communication application. Consider how many news, mapping, messaging, weather, food, calendar, etc., applications the average smartphone user employs. If each of those applications were a single purpose-built capability, users would choose between devices and ultimately limit their effectivity. This is precisely what happens in today’s satellite connectivity environment. Transport Virtualization eliminates this constraint and allows users to develop natural resiliency in their satellite networks.

Most Americans and world citizens are more familiar with Kennedy’s quote, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” spoken at the Berlin Wall on June 26, 1963, but Kennedy’s comments in Assembly Hall the day before are far more powerful. We are at the forefront of a sea of change in the communications industry where we have observed the use of cloud services and software support of functions take over the majority of our terrestrial networks. The same capabilities are now being released for the satellite industry.

Envistacom is bringing Transport Virtualization to the forefront of both government and commercial networks. Enabling these new capabilities will allow users to focus on best employing their networks without the need to focus choosing the right hardware devices for their networks. Through Transport Virtualization, innovation, flexibility, and employment of the fastest, most secure, and most economical networks may be realized. Envistacom will continue to develop an open and fair ecosystem for the benefit of users and technologists alike.

There may be some initial hesitation and temporary inflexibility by some, but the proof lies before us in both the cloud and mobility marketplaces. Early hesitation — specifically in the satellite industry — might be the result of a lack of understanding or the discomfort that comes from developing a new business model. An opportunity stands before us however, and the winners in this new paradigm will be the early entrants who jump on the moving walkway earlier, creating a new gap between themselves and their competition in the innovation space. Innovation and flexibility are eternal customer demands, and those who best address those demands are rewarded handsomely.

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