Azure Orbital Will Connect Microsoft’s Cloud Data Centers to Space Satellites

Doug Mohney is the of Editor in Chief of Space IT Bridge, which tracks the business of space-based satellites. He has been working in and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years.

There are no limits to where Microsoft’s Azure cloud service will go. On Tuesday the company announced plans for a satellite ground station service and a colocation agreement with satellite broadband provider SES.

“We are extending Azure from under the sea to outer space,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella during his opening keynote of the Ignite event, referencing the company’s deployment of an underwater data center. “With Azure Orbital, we are now taking our infrastructure to space, enabling anyone to access satellite data and capabilities from Azure.”

Azure Orbital will connect satellites directly to Microsoft’s data centers, and is currently available in “preview” mode. It is Microsoft’s most assertive action to date to embrace the space sector, a vertical currently generating hundreds of terabytes of data per day and expected to grow significantly over the next five years as satellite-based IoT and imaging constellations come on line.

Detailed in a company blog post and a more lengthy product description, Azure Orbital is a cloud-based “Ground Station as a Service” providing a single point of contact for companies to operate satellites, such as when and where imagery spacecraft should take pictures of the Earth’s surface, and to directly downlink imagery and other types of data into the Azure cloud using a virtual network.

Like Amazon AWS Ground Station, Azure Orbital enables companies to immediately communicate with and control their satellites, as well as promptly delivering data into the Azure cloud for storage and processing.

Keeping Pace with the Expansion of Cloud Services

Why is Microsoft getting into the satellite world now? “Infrastructure is easy to fall behind in,” said Venkrat Krishnamachari, CEO of MonteCloud, who worked as a product manager for both Microsoft Azure and Amazon AWS. “Satellite is another mechanism to get to the customer. The last time Microsoft slowed down, it cost them dearly. Microsoft doesn’t have to be the first mover. It has the advantage to sit back and learn from the mistakes of others.”

Krishnamachari sees Azure Orbital and the partner ecosystem it has built as a “good next step” for Microsoft to match Amazon AWS capabilities in managing satellites with the potential to partner with SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network down the road to connect the Azure cloud with global customers as a resilient communications option in the future.

“Customers are accustomed to that ubiquity with compute storage and power,” he said. “They don’t care how they get it, just that they get it. The (broadband) space race gives them the opportunity to offer multiple routes, giving data center operators a leg up between the cheapest and most available. Satellite is less prone to infrastructure challenges in terms of unplanned issues with ground-based infrastructure.”

By providing a single interface for operations, Azure Orbital cuts out intermediate steps in tasking satellites and moving information into a cloud environment, enabling data to be immediately processed with Microsoft value-added services such as analytics, geospatial tools, machine learning, and Azure AI services. Being able to quickly process data is increasingly important as businesses and government agencies tap into a growing world of commercial imaging and IoT services.

How Satellite Companies Extend the Cloud

Speed and ease-of-use are vital for the numerous space startups building businesses around open-standards and consumer-style mass produced satellite hardware to construct constellations of satellites for servicing IoT networks, collecting radio frequency data, and imaging the entire globe within hours. Customers want raw and processed data as fast as possible, and startups need to be able to deliver results quickly to compete with other startups and established industry players.

Space companies are big business for cloud providers. A large optical imaging satellite networks such as Planet’s fleet of over 160 satellites can collect over 10 terabytes of data per day while radar satellite constellations composed of dozens of spacecraft are expected to collect dozens of terabytes per day. Over the course of a year, a single imaging company will generate a petabyte or more of raw data that needs to be stored and processed, with the value of the imaging data catalog increasing over time as customers discern changes in the landscape – say the loss of trees in Oregon and California due to forest fires or crop health. Other satellite-informed economic indicators include the number of cars in mall parking lots and shipping containers stacked up at ports around the world.

There are two big differences between Microsoft Azure Orbital and Amazon AWS Ground Station. The first is Microsoft’s larger ecosystem of satellite ground station partners, and the second is the colocation of SES ground station facilities with Microsoft data centers. SES is an established global player, with 35 years of experience in the satellite industry. Amazon initially announced it was working with Lockheed Martin to build out a ground station antenna network, but the company appears to be expanding AWS Ground Station coverage worldwide using its own resources rather than working with a larger network of third-party relationships.

How Azure Orbital Approaches the Space Business

A diagram of the Azure Orbital service, which connects Microsoft's data centers to satellites. (Image: Microsoft)

A diagram of the Azure Orbital service, which connects Microsoft’s data centers to satellites. (Image: Microsoft)

Azure Orbital ecosystem partners include Amergint, Kratos, KSAT, KubOS, SES, US Electrodynamics, and Viasat, with Microsoft directly interconnecting its global network with partner’s ground station networks as well as putting up its own satellite antennas. KSAT, ViaSat, and US Electrodynamics all operate networks of ground stations, potentially providing Microsoft with a much larger “sky” coverage footprint than Amazon has in operation. Anyone invested in the NFV (network functions virtualization) model for telecom will recognize Azure Orbital’s use of virtualized modems, leveraging Amergint and Kratos software radio processing using the cloud.

The Microsoft-SES ground station colocation partnership is intriguing in a number of ways. SES will collocate its ground stations for its O3b mPower next-generation broadband system alongside Microsoft’s data centers, using Azure Orbital as a core platform to scale and build managed services. SES traffic will ride Microsoft’s global backbone network, routing traffic globally, while Azure and Azure Orbital will provide multiple managed services ranging from security and SDWAN to 5G mobility services – again, another NFV calling card.

Direct access to SES’s O3b mPower broadband system is also a big win for Microsoft as it moves forward with its $10 billion JEDI Department of Defense cloud services contract. The U.S. military values resilience, and the ability to communicate with its forces in remote locations and on the move. SES’s O3b mPower broadband satellite network is capable of delivering speeds up to 10 Gbps at latencies around 140 milliseconds to an established base in Europe or an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific.

While both Amazon and SpaceX are building satellite broadband networks, Amazon won’t start launching satellites for several years. SpaceX is roughly halfway through building its network, which will have lower latencies under 100 ms or less and operational data rates expected to be around 100 Mbps. Microsoft’s access to the SES O3B mPower broadband network provides the company with an off-the-shelf high-speed satellite service that will be familiar to the U.S. military.

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