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Can the Internet Survive A Cosmic Ray?

This week we saw the largest solar storm in nearly a decade and such “solar weather” or cosmic radiation is what generates such phenomena as the “Northern Lights”. However, intense solar activity which creates electromagnetic storms can generate exceptionally strong power surges that damage electrical distribution systems, knock out satellites, and affect sensitive electronics. This has happened in the past, including grid failures in Quebec in 1989 which blacked out the entire province.

The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured this video of the M3.2 solar flare on January 19, 2012. Credit: NASA/SDO/GOES-15.

It’s a well known problem for aerospace engineers designing electronics for airplanes and satellites, but these “Single Event Upsets” are an issue even in terrestrial-based systems that must meet high reliability operating requirements (although such problems on the ground would typically be the result of reasons other than cosmic radiation). The key challenge is that as electronics operate at faster speeds (beyond 10G) and the density of silicon chips increases, it becomes more likely that a stray bit of energy could cause problems which affect the performance of a router or switch. And despite being rare, for service providers that are building mission-critical networks, “very rare” is still too often. Our challenge was therefore to figure out how to prevent these unusual events, despite the lack of data or industry standards.

Cisco kicked off a program back in 2001 to research the effects of these rare but real events and determine how to prevent them, especially for our larger, mission-critical systems such as the CRS-3. We’ve even gone as far as to place equipment in a particle accelerator to simulate the effects of cosmic radiation over the long term. One key discovery was that simply making small, incremental changes was insufficient. It was necessary to architect systems from the ground up in order to hit our reliability objectives – and to consider system, component, and software elements working together. To validate our designs we also tested the performance of our competitors under the same accelerated conditions.

Several current and former Cisco employees – Allan Silburt, Shi-Jie Wen, David Ward, Adrian Evans, and Dean Hogle wrote a path breaking paper on the subject which was published by “IEEE Transactions on Nuclear Engineering” back in 2008 under the title “Specification and Verification of Soft Error Performance in Reliable Internet Core Routers”.  Needless to say, it’s not light reading – but if you are an IEEE member you can download a copy (Digital Object Identifier: 10.1109/TNS.2008.2001742).

However, the key points of this paper are that achieving reliable performance requires a top down understanding of the system to define how the hardware needs to behave and then a bottom up design methodology. This methodology must include from custom silicon chips, to software, and to protocols that leverage the resiliency features.

As a result of this research Cisco has sought to innovate with ASICs, system architectures, and software designs for our mission critical service provider platforms to minimize the impact from Single Event Upsets. As our lives depend more and more on networked electronic devices to get us through the day an increased emphasis on reliability is bound to propagate out from the network core to a mobile device near you.

So can the Internet survive a blast of cosmic rays? When it’s built on Cisco, the answer is yes.

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  1. Important subject about protecting the Internet infrastructure. But I quibble with comparing against coronal mass ejections with ‘regular’ cosmic rays.


  2. Hi Stephen,

    Many thanks for the write-up. It is indeed very exciting for people like myself (wannabe-Phycisists-ended-up-network-hacks) to know the extent of research and effort Cisco has put into radiation-hardening their devices specifically for the Space industry. I have no issue at all in accepting that radiation hardening against “regular cosmic rays” will work and has probably worked for Cisco since I think Cisco has already deployed routers in Space. I also read somewhere that Cisco has future proposed projects for Internet in Space, some or all of which may already be on the way. All very very exciting for people like myself who all of a sudden find that all that beautiful, energetic, sexy Physics need not get buried under mundane algorithm hacking and network hacks still may have a ray of hope to re-engage in the pursuit of the laws of nature:-)

    However, I do agree with Maria that “regular cosmic radiation” are not comparable with a full fledged CME (Coronal Mass Ejection). According to NASA (Dikpati et. al.), we may get blasted (and toasted ?) by our beloved Sun between 2012 and 2013

    It will be great if our Satellites running GPS and Communications systems, as well as our Transformers governing our electrical grids survive something like that, but whether they actually will survive or not, only time will tell :-)

    It is exciting though that industry leaders like Cisco are taking serious interest in looking up at the extra-terrestrial environment. Hopefully this trend will continue as, being pumped by industrial funding and energy, it will inevitably benefit the humans as a civilization.

    Great subject…i could go on for about a few years. So I’ll stop now :-)

    Thanks a lot!
    Best Regards



  3. March 13, 2012 at 5:00 am

    As a follow-up, saw this today: Frost & Sullivan Applauds Cisco for its Revolutionary Space Router :

    Great history through time if one starts reading from Sashi Kiran’s blog in 2010:

    Truly inspiring amazing achievement! Technology that every techie dreams of working with: networking, space science, satellite tech…”Stuff that dreams are made of” :-)