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Building on the announcement of Azure Orbital last month, on Tuesday Microsoft plans to unveil a much broader strategy for linking its earth-based cloud computing servers and networking technology with satellites orbiting the earth. Azure Space will be led by two recent hires from U.S. government agencies focused on space exploration and development, and partners such as Elon Musk's SpaceX and satellite giant SES are also on board.
The company is also introducing the Azure Modular Datacenter, a trailer-sized collection of servers and networking equipment that will be able to link up with Azure-powered satellites in space for internet connectivity. The idea is to bring mini data centers to difficult terrain around the world, building on Microsoft's underwater data center experiment, Project Natick.
"What used to solely be the bastion of governments, the innovation developed by private space companies has democratized access to space, and the use of space to create new scenarios and opportunities that meet the needs of both the public and private sector," said Tom Keane, corporate vice president for Azure Global, in a prerecorded video announcing the new effort. "At Microsoft, we intend to make Azure the platform and ecosystem of choice for the mission needs of the space community."
Microsoft's Azure Space announcement comes almost two years after cloud leader AWS first introduced plans for ground-to-space cloud computing services, kicking off a new type of "space race" between the two neighbors on either side of Lake Washington.
There's no question that in the wake of SpaceX's parade of successful private space launches, commercial interest in space has never been higher. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns a side business in space transportation and logistics called Blue Origin, and traditional aerospace companies like Boeing and Northrup Grunman are also expanding their horizons when it comes to orbital and suborbital activity.
Azure Orbital, unveiled at the company's Ignite conference last month, is a ground station service similar to what AWS unveiled in late 2018. Ground stations are used by satellite operators to communicate with the vast array of sensors and navigation equipment on a modern satellite, and both AWS and Microsoft are setting up ground stations with massive antennas near their existing networks of cloud data centers to give public and private space organizations cheaper options than building and operating their own ground stations.
Azure Space is a broader effort, similar to the Aerospace & Satellite Solutions business unit launched earlier this year by AWS. Microsoft's approach will start with the Modular Datacenter as well as partnerships with SpaceX, SES and several other satellite companies that provide various connectivity options between satellites orbiting the earth at different heights and earth-based data centers and networks.
The Modular Datacenter was designed for "a wide range of climates and harsh conditions," and can operate without a steady internet connection. Customers will be able to connect the MDC to traditional networks, but it will also be able to access satellite network options as a primary or backup option.
Microsoft operates the largest number of cloud data center regions among the major vendors, but there are lots of places on earth where it is far too challenging and expensive to set up the massive complexes that power Azure's cloud services. The MDC can be towed to remote areas and comes with all the cooling infrastructure needed to run a modern bank of servers.
Azure Space will be led by Stephen Kitay, who joined Microsoft in September after playing a central role setting up the U.S. Space Force, and Chirag Parikh, who directed space policy for the Obama administration as a member of the National Security Council.
Tom Krazit ( @tomkrazit) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering cloud computing and enterprise technology out of the Pacific Northwest. He has written and edited stories about the technology industry for almost two decades for publications such as IDG, CNET, paidContent, and GeekWire. He served as executive editor of Gigaom and Structure, and most recently produced a leading cloud computing newsletter called Mostly Cloudy.