Microsoft Azure Space diagram (Source: Microsoft)

Microsoft hypes Azure Space

Building on its announcement last month, Microsoft today announced it has established a broadband partnership with SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband service, giving the company access to two separate independent high-speed orbital networks.  Today’s announcements have a lot of “space” in them but it’s less about the aerospace industry and more about providing more access to Microsoft Azure cloud services.

Azure Space builds on Microsoft’s announcement of Azure Orbital, a satellite Ground-Station-as-a-Service offering similar to AWS’s ground station offering to control satellites and download data from them directly into the cloud.  In last month’s announcements, satellite operator SES said it would collocate O3b MPOWER ground station equipment next to Microsoft data centers, providing a direct link between satellite transport, cloud data centers on a regional basis, and cloud edge locations. SES’s O3b network is a Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) constellation delivering latency in the 100 ms range and speeds up to 10 Gbps.

SpaceX Starlink will provide high-speed low-latency broadband services for Microsoft’s new Azure Modular Datacenter (MDC), basically a self-contained shipping container full of servers, but including onboard cooling built into the container, RF shielding – good for preventing RF interference and detection by third-parties – and a network module (router?) constantly monitoring the network link, switching between ground connectivity and satellite as necessary or simply using satellite connectivity as the primary/only data connection.  

In addition, SpaceX plans to further connect its Starlink network with Azure’s cloud. There are no specifics, but Elon Musk has said/tweeted/suggested that connecting to data centers would be a necessity to reduce latency.  SpaceX’s win to build a group of demonstration satellites for a Space Tracking Layer system will be supported by Microsoft, presumably with a secure version of Azure resources as needed.

Microsoft’s announcement(s) provide a solid base for the company’s U.S. Department of Defense contract win, providing multi-vendor, “multi-orbit” connectivity to Azure MDCs deployed anywhere in the world, as well as another tool in the toolbox for multinational companies that need to move compute closer to a job site rather than conducting large-pipe backhaul for processing of large data.

According to various blog posts, Microsoft has tested/fielded Azure MDCs with government and corporate customers. It is also possible or likely Microsoft has been an early beta customer of SpaceX Starlink connectivity, given SpaceX’s revealed beta customers include a number of organizations in Washington state.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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