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Microsoft partners with SpaceX’s Starlink satellite service for Azure Space cloud platform

·6 min read
Satellite in orbit
Microsoft is partnering with a wide range of satellite and space companies to build its Azure Space cloud computing service. (Microsoft Illustration)

Microsoft says it’s taking the next giant leap in cloud computing, in partnership with SpaceX and its Starlink broadband satellite constellation.

“By partnering with leaders in the space community, we will extend the utility of our Azure capabilities with worldwide satellite connectivity, unblock cloud computing in more scenarios and empower our partners and customers to achieve more,” Tom Keane, corporate vice president for Microsoft Azure Global, said in a blog post.

The partnership with SpaceX is just one of the big revelations in today’s unveiling of Microsoft’s Azure Space cloud computing platform.

Microsoft also took the wraps off the Azure Modular Datacenter, or MDC, a mobile, containerized data hub that contains its own networking equipment and is capable of connecting to the cloud via terrestrial fiber, wireless networks or satellite links.

“If you choose, you can run this device completely disconnected from the rest of the world,” Bill Karagounis, general manager for Azure Global Industry Sovereign Solutions, said in a video describing the data center.

Today’s announcement builds on Microsoft’s earlier rollout of Azure Orbital, a satellite data processing platform that provides ground-station communications as a service. Azure Orbital, which is currently available in private preview, will become part of the wider Azure Space ecosystem.

The developments put Microsoft in the forefront of space-based cloud computing, alongside Amazon Web Services and its recently formed Aerospace and Satellite Solutions business unit. They’re also likely to turn cloud computing into yet another battleground for the multibillion-dollar rivalry between SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who founded the Blue Origin space venture.

Starlink satellites are manufactured at SpaceX’s facilities in Redmond, Wash. More than 800 of the satellites have been launched into low Earth orbit over the past year and a half, with the aim of offering global broadband connectivity to billions of people who are currently underserved.

SpaceX has already made Starlink available on a limited basis for applications including U.S. military exercises, emergency services in the midst of Washington state’s wildfires, and enhanced connectivity for the Hoh Tribe on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Commercial service is expected to become more widely available in the months ahead.

In a Microsoft video, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said Azure executives sought out the partnership with her company months ago. She said that providing satellite connectivity for mobile datacenters serves as the “perfect example” of synergy between SpaceX Starlink and Microsoft Azure.

“Starlink brings point-to-point communications from anywhere on Earth, so leveraging that along with Azure is really an incredibly robust capability for our customers,” Shotwell said in a statement.

The two companies plan to make further connections linking Starlink with Microsoft’s global network, including Azure edge devices, and will integrate SpaceX’s ground stations with Azure’s networking capabilities.

This month, SpaceX won a $149 million contract from the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency to build four satellites for tracking ballistic, cruise and hypersonic missiles — marking the first phase of what’s expected to be a much larger military satellite constellation project. Microsoft will serve as one of SpaceX’s subcontractors on the project, which is separate from Starlink.

Shotwell said Microsoft’s subsidiary role on SpaceX’s Pentagon project adds “a funny twist to the relationship.” It probably doesn’t hurt that Microsoft has its own $10 billion Pentagon contract for cloud computing services.

SpaceX isn’t Microsoft’s only partner for Azure Space. The cloud service will also take advantage of Azure Orbital’s previously announced partnerships with SES, KSAT, Viasat, Kratos, Amergint Technologies, KubOS and US Electrodynamics.

“We have made a deliberate decision to work with partners to deliver our offerings to commercial and government customers,” Keane said. “Creating opportunities in helping build broader ecosystems is core to everything we do at Microsoft.”

Luxembourg-based SES, one of the world’s biggest satellite operators, is due to play an expanded role in Azure Space. Microsoft said SES has already demonstrated how it can use its satellite network to connect to Microsoft’s modular datacenters in the event of a fiber outage. SES also plans to co-locate the teleports for its next-generation O3b MPOWER satellite network with Microsoft’s Azure data centers.

In a blog posting, Karagounis said some of the Azure Modular Datacenters are already in early use with defense and private-sector organizations.

The centers are meant to provide networking and self-contained data services for military mobile command centers, emergency relief stations, mineral exploration sites and other settings where high-intensity, secure computing is needed under challenging conditions.

From the outside, the data centers look like shipping containers — and can be transported like shipping containers as well. On the inside, they’re tricked up with racks of computer servers, heating and cooling systems, networking equipment and everything else that’s required for self-contained operation.

Karagounis said customers can run the data centers with full network connectivity, occasional connections or in disconnected mode. The centers continuously evaluate network performance and choose their connections accordingly. “In the event of a network disruption, the network high-availability module will move traffic from the impacted network to a backup satellite connection,” Karagounis said.

Modular Datacenter
An artist’s conception shows Microsoft’s Azure Modular Datacenter next to an airstrip. (Microsoft Illustration)

Also today, Microsoft unveiled Azure Orbital Emulator, a development tool that can simulate the behavior of a massive satellite constellation with software and hardware in the loop.

“This allows satellite developers to evaluate and train AI algorithms and satellite networking before ever launching a single satellite,” Keane said.

Keane said the emulator is already being used by Azure Government customers.

He noted that Microsoft has assembled a high-powered leadership team for Azure Space, including Stephen Kitay, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy; Chirag Parikh, who previously held positions at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the White House’s National Security Council and the National Intelligence Council; and Bill Chappell, who came to Microsoft Azure Global from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The market for satellite data services seems likely to heat up in the months and years ahead: The OneWeb broadband satellite venture is emerging from bankruptcy and planning additional launches, thanks in part to a massive cash infusion from the British government. Meanwhile, Amazon is laying the groundwork for its own Project Kuiper broadband satellite constellation — with operations due to be based in Redmond, not far from SpaceX’s satellite facility.

At one time, Amazon’s career website was offering more than 150 positions associated with Project Kuiper, but as of today that figure has declined to a mere 79 open jobs.

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