The European Space Agency (ESA) is a 22-member intergovernmental body devoted to space exploration. Headquartered in Paris and with a global staff of around 2,200, the ESA was founded in 1975. Its annual budget was €7.08 billion in 2023.

The challenge

The Columbus laboratory is the European module of the International Space Station and the cornerstone of Europe’s participation. Positioned on the starboard side of the Station’s leading edge, it is designed to provide an environment for pursuing research and development in a wide variety of fields. Its characteristics include:

  • Payload complement flexibility, provided by a modular design and serviced by a regular logistics, maintenance, and upgrade capability
  • A permanent crew presence for servicing payload support systems and interacting with payloads
  • A continuously available ground infrastructure for monitoring and controlling onboard activities

Columbus provides internal payload accommodation for multidisciplinary research into material science, fluid physics, and life sciences, while the External Payload Facility (EPF) hosts space science and Earth observation payloads.

Academics on Earth perform their tests on Columbus remotely – programming them and getting the results. The infrastructure required for these tests and the payloads that get sent back and forth require a flexible and dependable monitoring solution, and that’s where Zabbix enters the picture.

The solution

Zabbix proxy was deployed in the Columbus module alongside other software required for research, operations, and connectivity. The Zabbix server and frontend are deployed in the ground data center, and this is what the proxy communicates with.

In addition to proxies, we have a Zabbix sender and Agent 2 that are used on this infrastructure, which is made of VMS and containers running different kinds of services. Data is collected in a very ordinary fashion – Zabbix Agent 2 performs native checks because there is still server hardware running with operating systems and OS level resources that need to be monitored by the Agent.

We mix these native checks with user parameters which execute custom checks based on scripts or commands for commercial off-the-shelf components. The agent is extended depending on the requirements of the components. It then collects those metrics and sends them to the proxy. Scripting is used for custom components, and because Zabbix is language agnostic, any type of programming or scripting language works. It gets wrapped together with Zabbix sender, which then sends data to the proxy, which then sends data to the server.

Because there are so many custom services and metrics that need to be monitored (the number of high priority files in the transfer queue for a particular payload, for example) and because metrics, services, and payloads can change over time, the ESA needed to automate a way of automatically discovering these, displaying them, and collecting data for them. We used low-level discovery together with some scripting to discover and automatically start monitoring new payloads.

The results

Thanks to Zabbix’s visualization capabilities, the ESA’s team has found it easy to observe their dashboards and react to alerts in real time.

The ESA has also found Zabbix proxy to be an ideal solution for their needs, because if a link between the ground data center and the Columbus module goes down, the proxy keeps collecting local metrics, stores them in its own database, and then sends them back to the ground once the connection is restored. No such situation has arisen yet, but Zabbix has performed flawlessly in all test scenarios.

Monitoring is a never-ending process and there’s always room for improvement, but it’s reasonable to expect that the ESA will continue working on Zabbix and finding new metrics and new ways of improving monitoring.

In conclusion

Part of the beauty of Zabbix has always been its adaptability – it can be as simple or as complex as any user needs it to be. The simplicity of the Zabbix setup in this scenario (as opposed to a more modular setup with 4 or 5 pieces of software) is what makes it ideal for deployment by the ESA on the International Space Station.

To learn more about what we do for customers across multiple industries, visit our website or request a demo.

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