Could space (the one around Earth) be the next data center frontier?

18.10.2023 808 0

Data centers are essential with many industries relying on them to run the IT portion of their businesses. These facilities need robust infrastructure to handle all the data, traffic, and business-enhancing services, and this means focusing on fiber connections and sometimes also mobile connectivity.

But what about an entirely new frontier? Should data centers look up to the skies and beyond? Lately there has been an increased talk about satellites offering additional communication capacity for data centers. There have also been ideas of setting up data centers in space – not only for future space-based business ventures – but also for terrestrial use. It seems like space could and should be the next big niche for data centers and their accompanying infrastructure. Let’s explore why further.

Space needs more IT

Satellites have become a major contributor for scientists to monitor events on Earth. Satellites are also a key part of worldwide communications and relay data traffic. They have many roles, but often the large distances cause delays in the transmission of large amounts of data. It’s also a problem that satellites often don’t have the needed hardware resources to analyze data themselves and instead have to send it back and forth. However, this is a catch 22, because if they did have the required hardware for analysis, it would add weight, bulk, and other challenges, thus significantly increasing the launch costs.

As a result, most satellites are stuck with old hardware which is far from powerful enough, all while the IT industry on the ground continues to develop and improve at a rapid pace. This creates a big performance gap between space and ground-based IT systems.

Also, there has been a lot of talk about finally launching a commercial space industry. This would mean adding commercial space stations, even more satellites, various space-based projects, energy harvesting, and ambitious goals like space tourism, even space hotels. None of that can happen in the way all of us imagine – to have Earth-like digital capabilities and experiences – without bringing Earth IT technologies to space first.

This means building data centers in space. In fact, there’s already one up there. It’s the HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 and it was sent to the International Space Station (ISS) in February 2021. What’s important is that it features off-the-shelf hardware and it’s not hardened, meaning there’s no additional shielding or protection from space elements as is usually the case with other space-based electronics.

Of course, this data center is tiny in comparison with the ones on Earth. It features two HPE Edgeline Converged EL4000 Edge and HPE ProLiant machines, each featuring an Nvidia T4 GPU for AI workloads. The data center helps astronauts to run actual tasks on it and it also serves as an experiment on how the components will handle space conditions.

The new hardware also highlights the massive difference in computing power. For its major systems, the ISS uses Intel 80286SX processors which are from the late 1980s, DataCenterKnowledge notes. There are also more than 100 laptops and additional tablets and other devices which act as remote terminals. These devices are also used for Internet browsing, emails and even entertainment.

The main systems are hardened. This means they are shielded and have exact copies ready to step into action if there’s a malfunction. All of this takes time to develop and to test and then launch into space – and, yes, it’s expensive.

This is why space scientists and IT experts are both working on better, more modern ways. One of them is to set up data centers in space which can handle most of the computing needs for space stations and satellites. This way the facility will be easier to launch into space and to exchange with better ones faster and easier. Ideally the cost would also be shared among the clients, thus making it possible to upgrade it more often.

Space can help improve data center connections

There’s another way space can help data centers on the ground. That’s by becoming part of their communication infrastructure. Currently, data centers barely rely on satellite communications. Which is ironic considering that the average person actually thinks most of the international data transfers are going through space and not via the massive subsea cable network.

In reality, space communications have a tiny capacity compared to terrestrial ones. EuroConsult estimates that total global satellite capacity will reach 50Tbps by 2026 (currently a little less than 25Tbps), while total subsea cable capacity for 2026 is predicted to reach 8,750Tbps, DataCenterDynamics reports.

With such a massive difference, why even bother with space? Because of the huge potential! Now, before we get into details, let’s make it clear: we aren’t talking about space data transfers to replace fiber and cables, unless there’s some massive technical development in the future, but for now that’s not really on the table. Space communications can become a viable redundancy asset and it can also help add that extra boost in capacity (and speed thanks to new developments) whenever needed.

For example, O3b Networks already has satellites capable of up to 10Gbps and it’s working to achieve global coverage within the year. These satellites can provide up to 5,000 beams per satellite which means multiple companies can have uncontested high-speed point-point connections. The capacity is so big that telecoms can backhaul multiple sites to a single point and data center operators can link multiple facilities as a backup connection.

“When we talk about data center networking, we can cover so much of the Earth, the true end-to-end performance is not that different from what you would do with a fiber connection because you’re not having to traverse a bunch of routers,” says Karl Horne, VP, telco/MNO data solutions at SES to DataCenterDynamics.

Microsoft and AWS already have separate deals with SES to provide containerized data centers for the US government which have such terminals to link back to a primary cloud region via satellite. For now, that’s just for backup. “Nothing will ever replace fiber as the thing that delivers that capacity,” says Horne, “but fiber still can be vulnerable. We’ve done some projects with some of the cloud service providers on their own infrastructure and how we can harden that.”

There will be new challenges

No matter if we are talking about improving satellite-to-Earth connections or creating space-based data centers, all space-looking projects with IT will bring a lot of new challenges. Circling back to the Spaceborne Computer-2 data center, the project will help discover and solve a lot of those challenges. For example, how to protect computers against space radiation without additional hardening.

In 2017, HPE sent the Spaceborne Computer-1 to the ISS. It spent nearly two years there, despite being scheduled for only one year. That computer had two servers which were running benchmark tests non-stop the entire time. The machine wasn’t shielded and sat in a locker at the ISS. There was an identical system on Earth, running the same benchmarks during the same time for comparison. In the end, the machine on the ISS ran 50,000 benchmarks and had 0 errors.

But there were other issues. The system featured 20 SSD drives. Nine of them failed in space while only one failed on the Earth-based twin system. There were also five times more correctable errors on the space system, but they were all self-corrected.

So, the new system focused on improvements for the SSDs and uses a GPU for AI, machine learning and image processing. The new system performs better, but it’s also not under so much stress as it’s not running benchmarks. Instead, it’s used by the astronauts for actual workloads. The main benefit? The majority of data processing is now done on the ISS and only the results are sent to Earth. This reduces the amount of transmitted data by 20 000 times.

“Now the scientists here on Earth are about to think about things that weren’t even conceivable before. When I can process the data in 13 minutes and download the results in two seconds, I can monitor astronaut health daily instead of monthly,” says Mark Fernandez, part of the Spaceborne Computer-2 project at HPE, to DataCenterKnowledge. For example, scientists are now able to analyze DNA of rodents and plants directly on the ISS, instead of transferring data back and forth.

Other challenges to solve are with communications, and HPE is working on multiple tests and simulations in this area. There will be a lot of work to be done regardnig this – it’ll include satellite-to-satellite communications, new communication protocols for all participants – space-to-space transfers and space-to-Earth and vice versa.

And let’s not forget cybersecurity and encryption. When we add new digital devices and communications, hackers will immediately want to breach them. And in space this can have dire consequences. So, security will have to be on point.

There are some space specific challenges, too, notes TechMonitor. For example, space-based data centers could be damaged by collisions by micrometeorites, space junk or other satellites. Geomagnetic storms could put them out of commission, too. This has to be considered, too, as it won’t be good if future space-based businesses or simply monitoring satellites suddenly are left without their space data center. So, redundancies would have to be in place and there’s should always be “spare data centers” on Earth ready for quick launching into orbit if needed.

At least power and cooling shouldn’t be a problem as both are virtually unlimited in space. It would still require some new technologies to better harness these resources.

But all of this means more innovations, more business opportunities and better options for economic growth. The added complexity of space will mean that progress will be much slower compared to ground-based projects, but it should be more than worth it in the long run. At least that’s the hope.

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