Ships are complex network environments, with a variety of internal and external connections for voice, broadband Internet, asset tracking, entertainment, and more. Managing all these connections has become a challenge, particularly given that typical networking equipment is not designed for maritime service.

Virtual Customer Premise Equipment (vCPE) appliances offer one solution. These appliances can manage multiple satellite WAN links while adding application-specific intelligence. The result is a considerable simplification of shipboard networks.

Wireless Communications at Sea

Most communications on modern ships are handled using mobile connectivity equipment, and eventually through a satellite. Such a connection provides the on-board staff and passengers the necessary VoIP and other online services they need.

Mobile maritime communications typically include a mix of WAN technologies to connect ship positioning systems, cargo, and passengers with the outside world. These often include VSATL-band, and 3G/4G/LTE networks, among other technologies.

The details of the WAN connections and onboard systems can vary widely depending on the vessel type. For example, ferries and cruise ships may need access to a lot of voice communications. In contrast, a cargo ship may need sophisticated asset-tracking systems, particularly for cargo that is individually tagged or closely monitored—such as food or medicine.

Depending on the network services and the degree of required connectivity, ship networks require different levels of management and protection. The technologies that support them must therefore be flexible enough to simultaneously support different types of connectivity and levels of service. But they must be able to do so efficiently in packages that can withstand the rigors of ocean travel.

Given the sometimes sensitive nature of the cargo (and by extension, the communications associated with that cargo), it is particularly important for maritime communications platforms to be extremely reliable, as well as secure from network-borne threats.

A vCPE Fits The Bill

vCPE appliances offer such a communications solution for maritime vessels. These platforms are capable of managing multiple satellite WAN links backed up by mobile networks for increased reliability and redundancy. Further, the appliances can be managed remotely, using virtual machines (VMs) to deliver advanced malware protection, data encryption, intrusion prevention, and more.

Another benefit of vCPE appliances is that they tend to be smaller and lighter than the older, traditional equipment. In fact, in some installments, up to 5U of rack space can be saved when compared to a separate network service device (NSD), router, server, and network switch appliances.

An example of such a solution takes advantage of Lanner's NCA-4010, shown in Figure 1, which is powered by four- or eight-core Intel® Xeon® D-1500 series CPU (formerly codenamed "Broadwell-DE"). The solution boasts up to 32 Gb of system memory, external cryptographic acceleration, and scalable networking configurations.

Figure 1. The Lanner NCA-4010 is based on the Intel® Xeon® Processor. (Source: Lanner Electronics)

Some key benefits derive from running on vCPE appliances, including lower support costs. This is derived by reducing the number of physical appliances required, which, in turn, lowers the failure rate. In addition, it's easier to maintain a safe system because security software can be implemented as a VM running directly on the vCPE device itself.

Moving From WAN to SD-WAN is Key

One of the key benefits of a vCPE is that it enables a software-defined WAN (SD-WAN), which can reduce the complexity of maritime communications. As seen in Figure 2, SD-WAN adds application-layer intelligence and service chaining in connections among vessels and within the vessel. It does so by employing an open cloud approach to manage and control the WANs. For example, it allows you to integrate VSAT, L-band, and mobile networks for more redundancy and reliability.

Specifically, the SD-WAN seamlessly integrates a customer's routed networks, including multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) and broadband and wireless connections, and implements application-based intelligence and control to overlay conventional packet-based routing with SD-WAN technology. The dynamic WAN load balancing helps system integrators meet all necessary service-level agreements (SLAs).

In a real-world example, Lanner and Versa Networks have tested and validated an integrated solution that combines Lanner's compact vCPE appliances and Versa Networks' SD-WAN and SD-Security software. The joint solution lets managed service providers centrally manage SD-WANs at their customers' sites, and is based on off-the-shelf components that eliminate the need for expensive proprietary solutions.

Increasing Reliability in Maritime Networks

vCPE appliances and SD-WAN technology also enable further savings in terms of space and engineering support costs. By replacing multiple dedicated networking platforms with a single vCPE appliance, maritime operators can save considerable space on often-cramped ocean vessels. And by leveraging SD-WAN technology, networks can be updated remotely through software instead of needing to have an experienced network engineer on board at all times.

With these advances, maritime communications is now simpler, more cost-effective, and more reliable than ever before.

About the Author

Richard Nass’ key responsibilities include setting the direction for all aspects of OpenSystems Media’s Embedded and IoT product portfolios, including websites, E-newsletters, print and digital magazines, and various other digital and print activities, including the recently launched IoT Design website. He was instrumental in developing the company’s online educational portal, Embedded University. Previously, Nass was the Brand Director for UBM’s award-winning Design News property. Prior to that, he led the content team for UBM Canon’s Medical Devices Group, as well all custom properties and events in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Nass has been in the engineering OEM industry for more than 25 years. In prior stints, he led the Content Team at EE Times, handling the Embedded and Custom groups, and the TechOnline DesignLine network of design engineering websites. Nass holds a BSEE degree from the New Jersey Institute of Technology

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