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Microsoft's SpaceX partnership sends Azure to the final frontier

Microsoft has partnered with SpaceX to tie Azure to low-orbiting satellites. The company also introduced a modular data center to connect remote locations to satellites.

Once again, Microsoft is pushing Azure out to the edge. The edge of space, that is.

Microsoft this week launched its Azure Space initiative, complete with a range of products and new partners in hopes of positioning its public cloud to compete in the space and satellite segment of the IaaS market.

One of those partners is Elon Musk's SpaceX, which will supply satellite-based internet connection to Azure. The two companies will jointly work on providing connections to SpaceX's Starlink satellite broadband and Microsoft's new Azure Modular Datacenter (MDC), unveiled this week.

The new MDC is essentially Azure in a shipping container, the company said. The unit contains its own heating, ventilation and air conditioning, server racks, and full networking and security capabilities. The offering will target companies looking to set up an edge location in remote areas. The MDC, which can operate either connected or disconnected, works with Microsoft's Azure Stack Hub.

In a blog this week, Tom Keane, corporate vice president in charge of Azure Global, said the MDC is intended to support "high-intensity secure cloud computing in challenging environments." The unit is meant for situations where prerequisites such as power and building infrastructure are unreliable. "It is having Azure on your terms, where you need a self-contained unit," he wrote.

Azure Space is not meant solely for companies associated with the space exploration industry. Microsoft intends to target users primarily in the telecommunications, government and energy industries, although it plans to go after a broad range of users that have a need for remote access and greater bandwidth.

AWS vs. Azure Space

The new offering means Microsoft will go head-to-head with AWS in yet another cloud-based market. AWS jumped into the cloud-based space race several months ago with its AWS for Aerospace and Satellite Solutions offerings. The company also has its own satellite connection product called AWS Ground Station, along with a separate satellite company called Project Kuiper, which goes head to head against SpaceX's Starlink.

Some analysts believe the current satellite-based offerings of Microsoft and AWS can serve a useful purpose for corporate accounts looking to advance their edge or multi-cloud strategies out to far-flung, rugged locations. But there is still the problem of latency in the communications between satellites and the ground that both Microsoft and AWS will eventually have to address -- an issue that goes back decades.

Edge computing technologies on the ground or cloud are maturing but in dealing with satellites, [edge technologies] still have to go many miles up and many miles back. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done there.
Frank DzubeckPresident, Communications Network Architects, Inc.

"The latency issue has always been one that starts and ends with the satellites," said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects, Inc. "Edge computing technologies on the ground or cloud are maturing but in dealing with satellites, [edge technologies] still have to go many miles up and many miles back. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done there," he said.

The latency problem, in the case of Microsoft, might be less severe than in the past given Azure would be dealing with SpaceX's Starlink satellites, which fly in a low orbit around the earth, Dzubeck added.

In his blog, Keane said SpaceX Starlink indeed does provide "high-speed, low latency satellite broadband" for Microsoft's Azure MDC. Complementing its SpaceX partnership is the existing deal it has with SES, which provides support for SES's O3B Medium Earth Orbit constellation, thereby extending connectivity among Microsoft's cloud data center regions.

Looking ahead, Microsoft said it will partner with SpaceX to create connections between Starlink and Microsoft's global network as well as its Azure edge computing devices. The end goal is to integrate SpaceX's ground stations with Azure's networking capabilities. This would let corporate users access a wide range of Microsoft services, including machine learning and productivity tools.

In addition to SES, other satellite operators partnering with Azure Space include KSAT, Viasat, Kratos, Amergint, Kubos and US Electrodynamics. At that time the two companies will work together to expand satellite connectivity with the MDC and other cloud datacenters.

Microsoft rolled out a new service that gives satellite operators access to physical satellite communications features. With this access, satellite operators can process and analyze data in Azure as well as grant access to Azure Orbital ground station antennas.

Lastly, in a related announcement, Microsoft debuted a service called Azure Orbital Emulator, an emulation environment that creates large satellite constellation simulations with both software and hardware. The offering is meant for satellite developers responsible for evaluating and training AI algorithms involving satellite networking.

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