Microsoft Azure opens cloud access via SpaceX Starlink satellites

A SpaceX Starlink satellite antenna is connected to Microsoft’s Azure Stack Edge device. (Microsoft photo)

With the help of SpaceX, Microsoft is taking the next step in merging cloud computing with ubiquitous satellite connectivity.

Microsoft today announced the launch of a private preview for Azure Orbital Cloud Access, allowing users to connect to the cloud in a single hop from virtually anywhere via SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation.

For now, the preview is limited to Microsoft Azure government customers. But Jason Zander, executive vice president of Microsoft Strategic Missions and Technologies, said, “We are currently working on general availability and commercial expansion.”

“This timeline will be determined by the evolution of our work with our private preview customers and customer feedback,” Zander told GeekWire in an emailed response to questions.

Today’s announcement, which coincides with the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris, comes nearly two years after Microsoft announced it would be working with SpaceX on satellite cloud access.

Since then, SpaceX has launched more than 2,000 other Starlink satellites – built at the company’s facilities in Redmond, Washington, not far from Microsoft headquarters. These ongoing deployments pave the way for Azure Orbital Cloud Access to take root.

“Starlink’s high-speed, low-latency global connectivity coupled with Azure infrastructure will enable users to access fiber-like cloud computing anywhere, anytime,” said Gwynne Shotwell, President and Chief Operating Officer, SpaceX, in an explanation. “We are pleased to be able to offer this solution to both the public and private sectors.”

SpaceX already sells Starlink access on a commercial basis, but the Microsoft Azure deal is a package deal: Zander said the pricing structure is a “simple two-pronged setup” consisting of a monthly subscription fee, which includes the price of the antenna, and a pay- as-you-go model for the use of satellite capacities.

“There are no other equipment/rental costs,” says Zander.

The service is integrated with Juniper Networks software-defined networking technology that allows customers to prioritize connectivity between fiber, cellular and satellite networks.

Microsoft and SpaceX have already tested the system with pilot customers such as the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The NIFC test provided multiple connectivity channels from the field to FireNet, a cloud-based wildfire management application.

“We have achieved resilient communication and failover capabilities with intelligent prioritized traffic over cellular, fiber or satellite,” said Zander.

Jason Zander is Executive Vice President of Microsoft Strategic Missions and Technologies, (Microsoft Photo)

Also today, Zander announced that Microsoft’s cloud-based satellite control platform Azure Orbital Ground Station is moving into general availability after two years of development. He said Microsoft Azure will work with industry partners “to enable satellite operators to focus on their satellites and operate more reliably at lower costs and latencies from the cloud.”

Microsoft’s partners in deploying its “Earth Station as a Service” include KSAT, a global provider of ground station services based in Norway; Pixelel and Muon Space, early adopters of the platform; and Loft Orbital, a space infrastructure company headquartered in California.

“The first Azure-enabled Loft satellite will launch next year, ready for governments and enterprises to seamlessly deploy their software applications to space hardware within the Azure environment,” said Zander.

Zander reported on progress in Microsoft Azure’s campaign to shift the focus of satellite operations from hardware to software through an approach known as virtualization. Microsoft and its partners recently demonstrated how a high data rate iDirect modem can be fully virtualized as software on Azure for satellite communications.

Following this demonstration, Microsoft and SES, a Luxembourg-based satellite network operator, will join forces to develop the architecture for fully virtualized ground stations. Zander said a call for proposals will be sent out later this year to recruit the first cohort of participants in the Satcom virtualization program.

Microsoft isn’t the only cloud computing powerhouse aiming to leverage space-based resources: Amazon Web Services also has a number of space-centric offerings, including AWS Ground Station and AWS Space Accelerator. In the years to come, Amazon’s broadband satellite project, known as Project Kuiper, is likely to play a role for AWS similar to the role SpaceX plays for Microsoft Azure.

When asked via email about the differences between Azure’s approach and that of its competitors, Zander highlighted the partnerships Microsoft has formed with leading aerospace companies.

“We made a conscious decision to take a partnership approach rather than building and launching our own satellites,” he said. “From these announcements you can see that we are bringing products to market today (not months or years from now), which is a testament to our partnership approach and the efficiencies that come with it.”

Zander also highlighted the people behind the products.

“Azure Space is a strategic mission for the company and we believe that a satellite solution is core to our ability to effectively deploy a hyperscale cloud and we are making the investments to support this with a team that is rapidly growing to hundreds of committed employees has grown engineering resources in two short years.” he said. “Azure Space has quickly moved from vision to reality, and we look forward to continuing to work with our partners and customers to develop solutions that leverage this emerging technology universe.”

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