Making 5G Secure and Reliable
Staff posted on September 10, 2019 |

When the average consumer mentions 5G, they might be thinking about the ability to stream movies or football games in high definition. However, there’s more to this high-speed wireless technology than entertainment. In fact, 5G has commercial and military implications. We spoke with engineers at Mercury Systems, a leading commercial provider of secure sensor and safety-critical processing subsystems, to see how the company is preparing for the advent of 5G and its impact on U.S. national security and the global economy.

5G’s Commercial and Military Impact

Although it is widely recognized that 5G is the next step in wireless communication, what may not be obvious is the pivotal role that the technology will have within the U.S. commercial, industrial and government sectors. In order to maintain its advantage over economic and geopolitical adversaries, the United States must be at the forefront of 5G development. No country can remain a military super-power without a powerful socio-economic system. In that respect, 5G may be the trans-continental railroad of the 21st century.

Just as the transition from 3G, 4G and LTE to 5G will have enormous impact on future global communication networks, the same fundamental changes will affect the environment in which the Department of Defense (DoD) operates. For example, 5G has the ability to bring the edge of the battlefield closer to strategic decision-making authorities. By linking a virtually unlimited range of systems and sensors into the broader network, real-time information will be made available across battlefields, regardless of their geographical location.

While bandwidth will likely garner the majority of attention, latency may be of greater importance. In the world of the modern battlefield and the emergence of hypersonic weapons, “real-time” assumes a metric of ever-increasing importance—one in which the right answer delivered late is the wrong answer.

Cluttered Airwaves

The DoD is challenged with coming to terms with the competing interests of the global community and the U.S. with regard to available communication bands. In the U.S., sub-6 GHz bands have already been allotted to federal and DoD use—precisely the spectrum currently being adopted by the rest of the world as the U.S. focuses on 28 and 37 GHz bands, also known as millimeter wave (mmWave) networks. This critical divergence has been locked in and is not easily changed relative to cost and, more importantly, time.

Just as commercial entities have become the source of DoD information technologies, the DoD is unable to compete with rising global competition for sub-6 GHz wireless technologies and equipment. If the DoD and federal government are unable to come to terms with bandwidth sharing in the sub-6 GHz spectrum, the U.S. could lose this race to Chinese and European competitors as it attempts to simultaneously roll out technologies, devices and equipment for both federal and commercial use.

To add even greater urgency, if the DoD remains fixed to the sub-6 GHz spectrum, it may be forced to adopt Chinese-developed technologies that may be replete with “back-doors”. Furthermore, mmWave networks may have too many technical hurdles to overcome relative to geographic coverage, inherent physical limitations and competing global technologies.

5G: Promises and Potential Pitfalls

Among other benefits, 5G communication networks offer mobile users speeds up to 1Gbps and latency times of less than 1ms. With the billions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices already on the market and the exponential growth expected over the next few years, cell towers will become overwhelmed and the time it takes to get a message from one device to another will increase. Because of this, IoT devices may not be able to rely entirely on cloud computing for their data processing.

On the other hand, many of them won’t be able to manage the space, weight, power and cooling needed for edge computing. Mercury Systems thinks the solution lies somewhere between the cloud and the edge: the fog.

Cloud, fog and edge computing in military applications. (Image courtesy of Mercury Systems.)
Cloud, fog and edge computing in military applications. (Image courtesy of Mercury Systems.)

Fog Computing

Cloud computing offers the most power and storage capacity, but bandwidth and latency issues make it unsuitable for applications that need quick response times. To remedy this, many applications are using edge computing for their main processing with occasional exchanges with the cloud, which is viable for autonomous vehicles and other large devices. Anything smaller, however, will need a wireless (5G) connection to a nearby fog computer, delivering the high capacity of a server with high communication speeds and short latency periods.

Conceptual Diagram of Fog Computing. (Image courtesy of John Zao, et. al. Pervasive Brain Monitoring and Data Sharing based on Multi-tier Distributed Computing and Linked Data Technology.)
Conceptual Diagram of Fog Computing. (Image courtesy of John Zao, et. al.)

Fog Computing with Autonomous Vehicles

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) have their own sensors and navigation units built in, but they could benefit from fog computing in a number of ways. For example, an AV’s sensors can see obstacles in the line of sight, but suppose a group of bicyclists was riding in the car lane just around a bend. By the time the AV sees them, it could be too late.

However, a nearby tower may already be aware of this potential obstacle and send a warning to the AV as it approaches the curve. The cell tower would be equipped with an inexpensive server that communicates with the AVs in its range, essentially expanding each AV’s sensor range and computing power.

Composable Architecture

Mercury Systems envisions a set of 5G mini data centers to serve as the building blocks of fog-based networks. The general-purpose computers, running ultra-lean operating systems, can be dynamically configured to perform specific tasks. These “composable architectures” can be installed and maintained by technicians with no specialized training—necessary because of the sheer volume of the devices out there—and remotely configured by an engineer (near future) or self-configured (eventually) to meet the given application.

 Composable mini-servers feature modules that can be plugged into the chassis in any combination to meet specific system needs. To prevent a single point of failure, redundancy can be configured at a module level, versus system level - lowering the total cost of ownership. (Image courtesy of Mercury Systems.)
Composable mini-servers feature modules that can be plugged into the chassis in any combination to meet specific system needs. To prevent a single point of failure, redundancy can be configured at a module level, versus system level - lowering the total cost of ownership. (Image courtesy of Mercury Systems.)

These mini-servers, configured into software-defined data centers, will be installed close to the edge devices and near a power source in stationary locations such as cell towers, manufacturing facilities, university campuses, hospitals and military bases. Multiple servers plugged into sub-racks that connect the modules together across a high-performance interconnect will enable a broad range of functions such as data ingestion, machine learning and inference.

Putting data centers in the field, as opposed to locating them in secure, guarded locations, presents a slew of security issues. Secure channels must be established in 5G environments with edge computing. Mercury Systems is a leading provider of secure hardware-based solutions, so let’s take a look at the company’s approach to 5G security at the edge.


In 2016, a massive Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack brought a large segment of the Internet to its knees. Experts later determined that the attack was unwittingly enabled by home IoT devices with passwords that were never changed from the manufacturers’ defaults. With mission-critical applications relying more and more on the Internet, the proliferation of IoT devices exposes these applications to a myriad of malware. Mercury Systems Engineer Rick Studley said the best security is performed at the point of attack (i.e., the edge), using hardware instead of software.

5G’s increased bandwidth means more connected IoT devices with software-defined capabilities supported by additional layers in the processing and networking stack between the IoT devices and cloud. This opens up security concerns such as key management, privacy, access control and availability as data travels among these devices, along with growing concerns associated with the software defined-networking in the explosion of virtualization

In 5G infrastructure and vehicle environments, all data communication must be cryptographically authenticated. This means that all edge devices must be able to contend with DDoS attacks that overload the edge device with more packets than can be verified in a given time.

Many 5G edge computing devices need to be placed in environments that are vulnerable to adversaries with physical access to the devices. With physical access, a host of additional security concerns emerge. Among these concerns, undefended non-volatile storage may be read to recover credentials; adversaries can attempt side channel attacks (SCAs) to recover the keys when storage is cryptographically defended. Once an adversary has valid credentials, they can clone devices, intercept/forge communications and even gain access to privileged command and control resources in the cloud.


Ensuring that a system will stay operational is a twofold process. First, ensure the components are unlikely to fail. Second, recognize that some parts will fail anyway and build fault-tolerance into the product.

Mercury Systems has years of experience designing components for military and aerospace applications, so its accustomed to making products that are electrically and mechanically robust. Devices that are smaller and consume little power are less likely to fail in the field. Today’s military and aerospace components can work at extreme temperatures and survive earthquake-like conditions, making them suitable for mission-critical applications in harsh environments.

Engineers can build all the robustness possible into a system, but at some point, almost everything fails. How does the system stay operational in the presence of a breakdown? The simplest and most expensive method of providing fault-tolerance is to build in some redundancy: having a backup that can take over if the primary unit fails. For example, a system may have five identical servers working in parallel, each doing its own task. If one of them fails, information can be rerouted around it with the remaining four taking over the responsibilities of the inoperable unit.

Ideally, this reconfiguration can happen automatically to keep the system functioning until a technician replaces the failed component. Just like installation, these field-replaceable units can be swapped out by low-level technicians, reducing the cost of maintenance.

5G promises high speed and, when coupled with edge-based and fog-based computing, low latency. Mercury Systems is using its experience with military and aerospace electronics to ensure that those fast 5G networks operate securely and reliably, keeping the U.S. at the leading edge of technology and maintaining a strong economy and a solid national defense.

To learn more, visit Mercury Systems.

Mercury Systems has sponsored this post.

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