Microsoft takes the edge into space with Azure Orbital

Microsoft takes the edge into space with Azure Orbital

A couple of interesting product launches from Microsoft as it continues to flesh out its edge portfolio. Microsoft is eyeing a new market: space. The umbrella term for these new releases is Azure Space (Microsoft calls it an ecosystem). There are several components to this new product family: Azure Orbital, Azure Modular Datacenters, ExpressRoute for Satellites and Azure Orbital Emulator.

The following company briefing has been made available through our partnership with Structure Research, an independent research and consulting firm with a focus on the cloud, edge and data center markets.

Azure Orbital: What Microsoft calls ‘Groundstation-as-a-Service’, this is an offering for satellite operators. It is in preview for now. Most satellites orbit the earth rather than remain in one spot (what is referred to a geostationary), and this means running a large number of ground stations to downlink data to earth. Microsoft has teamed up with several providers in this market to integrate Azure into the platforms used for data capture and processing. For example, it will enable operators to schedule contact with satellites as well as downlinks of data. The data can then be on-ramped into Azure for storage, processing and analysis.

Azure Modular Datacenters: These are container-sized units which Microsoft sees being used in challenging environments such as mineral exploration or military missions, where it is difficult or impractical to use products like Azure Orbital to ingest data into Microsoft’s cloud. These containers can be deployed anywhere and come equipped with Azure services. The idea is to give remote operations the ability to process and store large quantities of data locally and with minimum latency. The containers fit on the back of a lorry, are ruggedized, and self-contained, meaning they can operate with spotty network availability (they can use a satellite connection if all else fails). Microsoft says this feature is a differentiator, and it has inked an agreement with Elon Musk’s Starlight. This ambitious project aims to provide high-bandwidth broadband to consumers round the world using a fleet of Internet-enabled satellites. For more mundane requirements, Microsoft also has an agreement with SES Networks, a Satellite operator, for connectivity.

ExpressRoute for Satellites: As mentioned above, it is now possible to access Azure using ExpressRoute (Microsoft’s private connectivity option) via Satellite, and Microsoft is partnering with Inmarsat and ViaSat and SES for the service.

Azure Orbital Emulator: This tool conducts massive satellite constellations simulations with hardware and software ‘in the loop’. The idea is to train machine learning algorithms before launch. Microsoft confirms this service is already being used by customers in its Azure government environment.

Angle: Hyperscalers see the edge as one of the most promising markets open to them over the next few years, so it was only a matter of time before they turned their attention to satellite. Microsoft has been interested in the market for data centers in extreme places for a while, as programs such as Project Natick (an underwater data center pilot) show. It does not have the market to itself here, though. AWS launched AWS Ground Station in June last year. Originally Amazon planned to build a network of twelve ground station nodes, the idea being to provide space startups with the necessary infrastructure for downlinking processing and storing data. But that was scaled back to six when Amazon found out that its customers wanted different locations from the ones Amazon had selected. In future, Amazon plans to fix the locations with customers (presumably when it has a customer ready as a ‘marquee tenant’). It goes to show that this new market is not the easiest for a new vendor to enter. Microsoft, of course won’t exactly be a new vendor here, as Microsoft’s products are no doubt as prolific in the satellite world as they are in every other enterprise vertical. Many of the applications used by satellite ground stations probably run on Windows. Microsoft hopes that will make a shift to Azure less of a daunting prospect than a move to another hyperscaler. Overall, satellite infrastructure communications is still developing when it comes to cloud computing, but it in the coming years and decades, it will be the next frontier of edge and bring more pieces into the ecosystem.

Daniel Beazer, Contributing Analyst, Structure Research

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