Azure Orbital launches Microsoft into a cloud computing space race with Amazon

KSAT Svalbard ground station
The world’s largest and most northerly commercial satellite ground station, KSAT’s Svalbard Station in Norway’s Arctic archipelago, will be part of Microsoft’s Azure Orbital network. (KSAT Photo)

Call it the Clash of the Cloud Titans: Today Microsoft is taking the wraps off Azure Orbital, a cloud-based satellite data processing platform that competes with Amazon Web Services’ Ground Station offering.

The launch of Azure Orbital, timed for this week’s Microsoft Ignite conference for developers, can be taken as another sign that the final frontier is the next frontier for cloud computing.

“Essentially, we’re building a ‘ground station as a service,’ ” Mark Russinovich, chief technology officer at Microsoft Azure, told GeekWire in advance of today’s unveiling.

“Satellites are becoming more and more important for a variety of reasons,” he said. “When it comes to cloud and data processing, obviously the cloud is a key part of any solution that goes into leveraging satellites, whether it’s imaging for weather, or natural disasters or ground communications.”

Microsoft Azure CTO Mark Russinovich at the GeekWire Cloud Tech Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Like AWS Ground Station, Azure Orbital makes it possible for satellite operators to control their spacecraft via the cloud, or integrate satellite data with cloud-based storage and processing.

“We’ve got lots of customers in the public domain and government, in the private sector even, that are leveraging satellite imagery for various uses — and that want to leverage cloud services on top of that, as well as the IoT aspect,” Russinovich said.

To cite one example, oil-rig operators could monitor their equipment remotely via satellites and the cloud. “We’ve got customers like that,” Russinovich said.

For the Ignite demonstrations, which involve downloading imagery from Spain’s Deimos-2 satellite, Russinovich will be taking advantage of a Microsoft ground station that’s situated near the company’s 800,000-square-foot data center in Quincy, Wash. But to extend Azure Orbital’s reach even farther, Microsoft will be relying on a host of partnerships with other companies.

Azure Orbital overview
This schematic provides an overview of the technologies and partner ecosystem for Azure Orbital. Click on the image for a larger version. (Microsoft Graphic)

Norway-based KSAT will provide additional satellite connectivity via its network of more than 200 antennas at two dozen sites around the world. In a news release, KSAT CEO Rolf Skatteboe said cloud-based data delivery “will not only change the way we deliver our services, but also how our customers will be able to utilize this information in the future.”

Luxembourg-based SES, one of the world’s biggest satellite operators, will provide communication services.

SES Networks CEO John-Paul Hemingway said his company plans to co-locate the gateways for its next-generation O3b mPOWER satellite constellation with Azure Orbital. “This one-hop connectivity to the cloud from remote sites will enable our MEO [medium Earth orbit] customers to enhance their cloud application performance,” he said in a statement.

Azure Orbital’s other partners include Viasat, Amergint Technologies, Kratos, KubOS and US Electrodynamics.

Russinovich said one of the key differentiators is the integration of software-defined modem technology into Azure itself.

“The digital signal processing that happens as the data comes off the satellite from the ground station into Azure … that is something that doesn’t require special hardware deployed in our data centers or in ground stations,” he said. “It’s a software solution that we co-design with these partners.”

AWS, which launched Ground Station almost two years ago and set up an entire business unit for the aerospace and satellite industry this June, may have a head start on Azure Orbital. But Russinovich said there should be plenty of room for Seattle’s other cloud titan. And who knows? They may not even clash.

“There’ll be some partners that are shared between us, and some that might be exclusive to one or the other,” he said. “I think that our goal is to expand the partnerships as broadly as we can. … We want to have a diversity of solutions in the marketplace.”

Today’s Ignite announcement kicks off a free private preview for would-be users. For more information, or to participate in the preview, email MsAzureOrbital@microsoft.com. Microsoft has also set up an online introduction to Azure Orbital, plus documentation.

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