Microsoft's Azure Space Program Gets 'Modular' Datacenters
- By Kurt Mackie
- October 21, 2020
Microsoft recently unveiled its new Azure Modular Datacenters, boxcar-like structures that can deliver compute and storage capabilities anywhere on earth, even "extreme" environments.
The new datacenter types are part of Microsoft's overall Azure Space program. Microsoft is currently working with satellite operators to add satellite connections as an option for Azure Modular Datacenters, which is apparently is how it intersects with the Azure Space effort.
Currently, however, Azure Modular Datacenters don't appear to be available. Microsoft described them as being "in early use with defense and private sector organizations."
The Azure Modular Datacenter product is different from Azure Orbital, which is a structure with radio equipment that's used to provide a "ground station as a service" capability, mostly for satellite service providers. Microsoft had described Azure Orbital and its partner collaborations during its September Ignite event. More on Microsoft's Azure Space partnerships can be found in this recent Microsoft news article.
Azure Orbital, currently at the preview stage, is designed to receive data from low-earth orbit or medium-earth orbit satellites, such as pulling down satellite imagery. Other suggested uses for Azure Orbital are more down to earth, such as using them as edge devices for data processing via artificial intelligence, 5G wireless network support and as software-defined wide area networks.
Azure Space Ambitions
Microsoft defines Azure Space as a combination of product offerings and partner collaborations -- all with a global strategy in mind, according to Tom Keane, corporate vice president of Azure Global, in a Microsoft-produced video explanation. Azure Space products extend across cloud, edge, machine learning, augmented intelligence, automation, networking, visualization and digital solutions, he added.
Essentially, Microsoft intends to provide cloud capabilities that will meet the space needs of governments and industry.
"With Azure Space we have ambition to make space connectivity and compute increasingly attainable across industries including agriculture, energy, telecommunications, and government," Keane stated.
Newly announced in that regard is a partnership with SpaceX Starlink, which "will provide high-speed, low-latency satellite broadband for the new Azure Modular Datacenter (MDC)," Microsoft indicated. Microsoft is also expanding its Azure Orbital partnership with SES by adding support for SES' O3B Medium Earth Orbit satellites.
Additionally, Microsoft has developed an Azure Orbital Emulator solution that will make it easier for satellite producers to design their products. The Azure Orbital Emulator lets satellite developers use artificial intelligence algorithms to align satellite networks before launch. Actual satellite imagery gets used in the process. Azure Orbital Emulator is currently in use by some Azure Government subscribers.
Other Azure Space Highlights
The announcement by Keane also touted Microsoft's work with the U.S. Defense and Innovation Unit. It's working with Microsoft and Ball Aerospace as part of the U.S. Air Force's "Commercially Augmented Space Inter Networked Operations (CASINO) project." CASINO is an offshoot of the Blackjack program, a Defense Advanced Research Project Agency effort to commoditize low-earth orbit satellite services with the aim of making warfighting cheaper.
Microsoft also pointed to the efforts of geoscience company Seequent, which is using Azure computing power and satellite imagery to monitor water quality around the world. Additionally, Land O'Lakes is using Azure Farmbeats satellite imagery, plus data from sensors and drones, to determine crop yields and crop stressors, which gets processed using artificial intelligence models.
Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.