Why on Earth Would You Make Satellites Part of Your Cloud Network?

You can now plug into Azure via slow but steady satellite connections.

Mary Branscombe

October 29, 2019

3 Min Read
A visitor looks at a model of a ThalesAlenia SES-17 satellite at Satellite2019 in Washington, DC, in May 2019.
A visitor looks at a model of a ThalesAlenia SES-17 satellite at Satellite2019 in Washington, DC, in May 2019.NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Satellite connectivity might be your last resort for Internet of Things or failover of critical networks, but you can now treat it like any other private connectivity route to the cloud.

Private connections to public clouds usually go over dedicated MPLS lines, because that’s the standard for WAN switching. But as edge computing and industrial IoT grow in popularity, so does the amount of locations where companies need cloud connectivity but don’t have MPLS access. If you want to use temperature sensors on a container ship to make sure the cargo doesn’t get too hot, for example, or analyse drilling data on an oil rig or at a remote mine, you won’t be able to get an Azure ExpressRoute connection.

Yes, you can operate Azure Stack and Azure Data Box offline, but that doesn’t give you the scale or the storage economy of the cloud.

That’s why Azure ExpressRoute now includes satellite connections from Intelsat, SES, and Viasat, with a range of orbital locations to cover different geographies (and different price points) using medium and geostationary earth orbits (MEO and GEO) at multiple latitudes. Planned low earth orbit satellites will improve signal strength and bring latency down to 10ms, the company predicted.

The latency and bandwidth won’t match MPLS connections, but they may not be as bad as you might expect. Microsoft expects about 120ms latency for GEO satellites and 40ms for MEO satellites. All the providers have networks of ground stations with fiber connections that keep the latency predictable. If you need to speed that up, you can use APIs from NetFoundry (already in the Azure marketplace) in your apps or microservices orchestration platforms to get what the company calls “close to private network speeds,” which are up to 20 times faster than uncompressed satellite connections.

Related:Why AWS Is Getting into the Satellite Data Business

The advantage of getting satellite connectivity through ExpressRoute is that you get the same level of security as other ExpressRoute connections; and you don’t have to manage multiple different connections. The NetFoundry gateways sit in the cloud VPC, so you still get private network routing.

You may still want to combine local compute and ExpressRoute when you use satellites, a Microsoft spokesperson told us. “The scenario fits well to SD-WAN concepts where the local compute – say Azure Data Box or Azure Stack – can pick the best connection based on characteristics like latency, throughput, costs, network reliability, and so on.”

It’s not just for IoT and edge computing, they noted. “Other use-case scenarios include disaster recovery, enterprise connectivity, communications, and mobility.”

Profiles and policies are critical to making this kind of connectivity work, Atchison Frazer, head of worldwide marketing at Versa Networks, told us, especially if you’re using it as a backup for faster links in a hostile environment. “Where we see satellite today is as the link of last resort,” he said. “It’s expensive, but in certain geographies, if you’re in say the oil and gas business, you need fast failover -- the only option is satellite. We can set up policies for MPLS, broadband, LTE, 4G, and satellite with different failover policies. In that policy we can use URL filtering and block bulk and interactive traffic to deny anything except business critical traffic, and we can do monitoring and analytics at the same time, with deep packet inspection to ensure quality of service. If you’re in Dakar, and you’re trying to stream Netflix while you’re uploading the latest geophys maps, you’re going to get blocked.”

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