Remember when Microsoft was going to put Azure in space? It's still trying

'Cloud connectivity' hits different this time

Microsoft has announced some movement within its two-year-old Azure Space program, which as the name suggests aims to offer cloud services to satellite operators.

The program lineup now includes a preview of Azure Orbital Cloud Access, which relays connections from the Azure cloud to data terminals on Earth via satellite; the general availability of Azure Orbital Ground Station, said to be a fully managed ground station service; and a virtualization service.

The Azure Space effort mirrors similar moves by rivals Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google Cloud to gain footing in an expanding market to ultimately connect cloud resources to wherever you are dotted around the planet, via satellites. NSR, a research firm focused on space connectivity, said earlier this year that the satellite cloud service-delivery market could generate $32 billion and create more than 240 exabytes of traffic by 2031.

Microsoft's latest announcements Wednesday, made in the middle of World Satellite Business Week, are the next steps toward two key outcomes, according to Jason Zander, executive vice president of strategic missions and technology at Microsoft.

"First, we are dedicated to democratizing the possibilities of space by unlocking connectivity and data with the Microsoft Cloud," Zander said. "Second, we can also help support the digital transformation for our customers and partners in the space industry by using the flexible, scalable compute power in Azure."

Microsoft's Azure Orbital Cloud Access service is now in private preview, initially for US government agencies and aimed at environments where connectivity options are sparse or failover capabilities are critical. The service works with SpaceX's Starlink satellite connectivity and Azure edge devices, giving users wireless access to Microsoft cloud services wherever Starlink reaches.

The service offers "one-hop low-latency connectivity" to Azure and gives enterprises a satellite network option to go along with fiber and cellular. It also accelerates the integration of 5G connectivity with satellite communications, Zander wrote.

The fully managed service also integrates with Juniper Networks' SD-WAN technology to help manage traffic through available communications networks.

Microsoft's Azure Orbital Ground Station, a service that was first described when Azure Space was announced, is now generally available, giving satellite operators essentially a ground station-as-a-service option. The service, developed with such partners as KSAT – a company based in Norway that operates a global ground station network – is now available to satellite operators such as Pixxel, Muon Space, and Loft Orbital.

Microsoft also announced its Satellite Communications Virtualization Program, an early return on a partnership announced two years ago with SES, a satellite network communications provider. The goal is to deliver a virtualized satellite communications ground network through the use of software-designed hubs, customer edge terminals, virtual network functions, and edge cloud applications.

It also will bring together 5G with commercial satellite networks, which Zander wrote will bridge the gap "between terrestrial and non-terrestrial connectivity networks."

Azure is the world's second-largest public cloud service provider, sitting between AWS at number one and Google Cloud in a distant third, and all three have an eye on the stars. AWS has its own Aerospace and Satellite program, which covers such areas as satellite communications, research, and ground services.

Google doesn't have as broad a program as Microsoft or AWS, but has taken competitive steps. Last year the search goliath reached a deal with SpaceX, with Elon Musk's company building ground stations at Google datacenters that connect to Starlink satellites, connecting the satellite network to Google Cloud. In addition, Leaf Space's ground station-as-a-service offering runs on Google Cloud. ®

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