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Microsoft launches Azure Space initiative; partners with SpaceX

Microsoft is using its 'Amazon is your competitor' playbook to try to win over more satellite partners and customers. It's also launching a new Azure in a shipping container offering called Azure Modular Datacenter.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor
Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft is launching its Azure Space initiative on October 20. Azure Space is a set of products, plus newly announced partnerships designed to position Azure as a key player in the space- and satellite-related connectivity/compute part of the cloud market.

Azure Space isn't just for companies in the space industry. It's meant to appeal to companies in public and private industry customers in the agriculture, energy, telecommunications, and government markets. It's also meant for any customer with remote-access and bandwidth needs.

Microsoft's main cloud rival, AWS, announced its own space-industry strategy and space unit called Aerospace and Satellite Solutions, in June 2020. It also has created its own satellite connection service, AWS Ground Station, and a satellite venture called Project Kuiper which competes with SpaceX's Starlink and other satellite networking providers.

As it has done in other areas where AWS has its own products and services that could potentially compete with those from customers, Microsoft is playing up the fact that it isn't trying to be a satellite provider itself. Instead, will continue to partner with satellite companies with its Azure Space effort.

To hammer home this message, Microsoft is touting Elon Musk's Space X as one of its marquee Azure Space partners. Microsoft is working with SpaceX to provide satellite-powered Internet connectivity on Azure. The pair plan to deliver the option to connect SpaceX's Starlink satellite broadband to Microsoft's new Azure Modular Datacenter. SpaceX just announced this week that it has launched 60 more Starlink satellites for low-Earth orbit deployment as part of its gearing up for a public beta of its satellite-broadband service.

The Azure Modular Datacenter (MDC), also announced today, October 20, is Azure in a shipping container (a k a, a "field-transportable" solution"). The MDC -- which includes its own HVAC system, server racks, networking and security capabilities -- is meant to give customers a ruggedized option for setting up an Azure datacenter in remote locations. The MDC can run connected or disconnected. For now, MDC runs Azure Stack Hub, but a Microsoft spokesperson said this might not be the case in the future, as MDC is a self-contained datacenter. (Maybe that's a nod to Azure Stack Fiji, Microsoft's still non-officially-announced competitor to AWS Outposts? Not sure.) 

Microsoft and SpaceX also plan, in the future, to offer connections between Starlink and Microsoft's global network, including Azure edge-computing devices. The idea is to integrate SpaceX's ground stations with Azure networking capabilities, giving customers access to all kinds of Microsoft services, ranging from machine-learning and visualization, to productivity services.

Other partners Microsoft is touting as participating in its Azure Space initiative include satellite operator SES, KSAT, Viasat, Kratos, Amergint, KubOS and US Electrodynamics. Microsoft announced a partnership with SES for Azure Orbital last month at its Ignite conference; the pair also plan to do more work together to expand satellite connectivity with the MDC and other cloud datacenter regions and devices.

Azure Orbital is a new service that will provide access to physical satellite communications capabilities to satellite operators. Via private preview, Orbital will enable satellite operators to process and analyze data in Azure and schedule access to Azure Orbital ground station antennas. Last year at Ignite, Microsoft announced a related service called ExpressRoute for Satellite. This service, aimed at enterprise customers, not satellite operators, enabled users to communicate from a remote site to Azure locations over private and dedicated connections. Both of these services are now part of the Azure Space portfolio. 

Microsoft also announced today a new related service called Azure Orbital Emulator. Azure Orbital Emulator is an emulation environment that conducts massive satellite constellation simulations with software and hardware. It's for satellite developers who need to evaluate and train AI algorithms involving satellite networking before launching satellites. Azure Orbital Emulator is already being used by customers in Microsoft's Azure Government cloud, officials said.

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