Space News — June 6, 2016
Cloud Constellation’s lofty ambitions for building a server farm way above the clouds
Three years ago, Scott Sobhani and his colleagues were discussing ways to create a secure, global data-storage network when it occurred to them to turn satellites into orbiting data centers.
“To solve the pandemic global crisis of data insecurity, we started thinking about how to build a network that would not touch any other network,” said Sobhani, co-founder and chief executive of Los Angeles-based Cloud Constellation Corp.
The result is SpaceBelt, a planned series of space-based data centers that share information through laser communication links and send data to secure customer terminals on Earth through radio frequencies. Cloud Constellation announced in March that it had raised $5 million in a Series A funding round. A second round is underway, Sobhani said. Without commenting on how much money the firm seeks to garner in Series B, he said the company intends to complete the fundraising round by the end of the year.
Cloud Constellation has not yet selected a manufacturer for its first eight SpaceBelt satellites, which it plans to begin testing by the end of 2018 and use to offer service to customers around the world in 2019. The firm is holding discussions with four major satellite manufacturers about building the spacecraft, which will be roughly as large as a queen-size bed, Sobhani said.
Once it has eight satellites in orbit, the SpaceBelt will be able to deliver data from the SpaceBelt to any point on Earth, with the exception of the North and South poles, in about one-third of a second, Sobhani said.
The SpaceBelt constellation requires a minimum of seven satellites to offer global coverage. The eighth satellite is an on-orbit spare.
Cloud Constellation plans to raise $460 million for a constellation of 16 SpaceBelt satellites. The firm plans to derive about 60 percent of that money from export financing, Sobhani said.
Aerospace and computer security experts have mixed views of the planned SpaceBelt. “It is an interesting solution to a known problem: the security of data,” said Glenn Lightsey, an aerospace engineering professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “The advantage is you can manage where the data goes by sending it through a narrow-beam, encrypted signal.”
Lightsey said the SpaceBelt also will face unique challenges, including surviving long-term in the radiation of space. “For the cost of fielding a system in space, you can build pretty good security into a ground system,” he added.
Steve Bellovin, a Columbia University computer science professor, cited additional challenges for spacebased data centers, including “not being able to replace servers, launch costs, electrical power and cooling.” Data centers use a tremendous amount of power and generate a lot of heat, Bellovin said by email, adding that both problems are seriously exacerbated in an orbital environment. “These problems are solvable, but they’re not easy,” Bellovin said.
Sobhani concedes that data center on the ground would be much less expensive and easier to build, but says Cloud Constellation’s advantage is that it creates an new global communications backbone that does not touch any public networks. Plus the data will not travel through any jurisdiction it is not allowed to cross.
Increasingly, security and privacy concerns are prompting individual nations and the European Union to issue rules preventing personal data from traveling to jurisdictions that do offer adequate security. That is a problem for some cloud networks designed to move data around the globe without considering geographic boundaries.
The SpaceBelt is not designed to offer cloud storage for small businesses or individuals. It is intended for cloud service providers looking for a safe place to store or process data for large government organizations or multinational corporations. “We are providing an infrastructure,” Sobhani said.
Government agencies, for example, could use the SpaceBelt to view or store data acquired by drones or Earth observation satellites. “The traffic is channeled directly and only to the terminal the agency authorizes to receive it,” Sobhani said. “Once they have it they can distribute it in any way they wish or not distribute it.”
If a government agency wants even more security, Cloud Constellation could create an independent SpaceBelt parallel to its original SpaceBelt. “To be able to do that today, the government would have to build a constellation of satellites,” Sobhani said. Cloud Constellation proposes creating an independent SpaceBelt to offer global coverage with a single data center operating in a ring of satellites designed to relay the data.
The SpaceBelt consists of three types of satellites. Some are designed for maximum throughput. Others are built for data storage and processing, while a third type of satellite is intended only to relay data.