Server virtualization is all about running a workload in a standardized virtual machine that can be moved about from one virtualization host to another. That's nice for developers, because all they have to do is ensure that an application they are building will work properly in the virtual machine it is destined to run on, and any worries about the physical environment it will end up on are abstracted away.
That's particularly handy for developers if they don't know what physical hardware the application will end up running on — for example, if their application will run in the cloud. In that case they often don't have access to the physical hardware, and thanks to virtualization they don't need to.
Now, working with virtual machines these days is hardly rocket science — a fact that has not been lost on SpaceX spinout Vector, a micro satellite launch company that is working on what it describes as "software-defined satellite" technology called Galactic Sky.
The company's launch systems can hurl 50kg or 100kg satellites into space from just $2 million per launch, and it reckons it can carry out 100 launches a year starting in 2018. And its long-term plan is rather clever.
Vector wants to create a compute cloud, but rather than building a series of data centers filled with servers here on Earth, its cloud will be located beyond the clouds, on compute resources in a whole bunch of satellites placed in orbit. "Our ultimate vision is one of space app developers being able to develop satellite applications on their desktop computers and uploading them to an at-the-ready satellite constellation, yielding nearly instant data and revenue," the company says.
Vector Partnering with Citrix on Server Virtualization Platform for Space Use
In other words, developers can build software that runs on special virtual machines running Vector's GalacticOS, which is a purpose-built satellite app operating system. Obviously that requires a hypervisor, and although the company currently employs software industry veterans from VMware, Vector announced in May it will be joining forces with Citrix to bring data center and cloud virtualization technology into space.
What will happen is that Citrix and Vector will work together to enhance Citrix's XenServer server virtualization platform for space use and to validate GalacticOS. The resulting software-defined satellite solution will enable space application developers to build, test and simulate their applications without the need to build or launch a single satellite, according to the company.
"Integrating payload software into a completely virtualized satellites alongside Citrix allows us to cut down mission implementation from years to days, and furthers Vector's vision of lowering the barriers of space access," said Shaun Coleman, a Vector general manager.
Being able to code for a standard satellite platform rather than a specific piece of satellite hardware also has plenty of other benefits, including many of the benefits of terrestrial server virtualization. For example, one can imagine being able to increase satellite compute resources' utilization rates by running multiple workloads on a single satellite, or running different VMs at different times of the day, or moving workloads to satellites with more compute resources if that becomes necessary.
Server virtualization may have become fairly routine stuff down here on Earth. But it's clear that there are still areas — like space — where it has only just begun to make an impact.
Paul Rubens is a technology journalist and contributor to ServerWatch, EnterpriseNetworkingPlanet and EnterpriseMobileToday. He has also covered technology for international newspapers and magazines including The Economist and The Financial Times since 1991.