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Microsoft extends Azure networking with satellite connections

Microsoft Azure customers can now tap satellite internet providers through the private Azure ExpressRoute service. The move follows the release of AWS Ground Station in May.

Microsoft has already built out a global network of data centers to bolster Azure networking, but the company is now moving to extend its reach further via new partnerships with several satellite-based telcos.

The move especially caters to industries such as farming, mining and energy exploration, where companies often work in extremely remote locations far removed from land-based or even cellular network coverage.

Azure ExpressRoute, Microsoft's private connection option for Azure, can now take advantage of satellite connectivity. Initial broadband satellite partners include SES, Intelsat and Viasat. ExpressRoute has been tied into the companies' network of satellite ground stations, which ensures predictable levels of latency, Microsoft said in a blog post.

The partners manage a variety of satellites, such as geostationary ones that follow the Earth's orbit, as well as medium Earth orbit types, which are commonly used for navigation services.

Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites will become available for Azure networking later on, Microsoft said. These satellite types are launched in fleets configured to provide coverage in a similar manner to cellular networks.

LEO satellites are in vogue lately, with the likes of Tesla founder Elon Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos planning to launch thousands of them in a bid to create new global broadband internet networks that can reach users anywhere.

Also, AWS previously took steps to tap satellite data feeds, albeit with a different positioning than Microsoft has with ExpressRoute.

It's a great example how IaaS reduced IT complexity in even exotic areas like remote access.
Holger MuellerVice president, Constellation Research

In May, AWS Ground Station became generally available. The managed service co-locates ground stations near AWS regions, and customers can use it to download satellite data into AWS for processing and analysis.

In comparison to Microsoft, AWS has positioned Ground Station more as a way for enterprises to tap satellite data for tasks such as weather analysis less expensively than leasing time on ground stations or building them out itself, rather than as an ongoing extension to their private Azure networking footprint.

Both Microsoft and AWS previously formed partnerships with satellite companies around industrial IoT connectivity scenarios. Microsoft teamed up with Inmarsat, and AWS is working with Iridium Communications on an IoT service called CloudConnect.

Satellite connections give enterprises cloud cover

Holger Mueller, vice president and principal analyst, Constellation ResearchHolger Mueller

Microsoft's move makes sense at a time when enterprises are building the next generation of cloud-based applications, which may require new levels of connectivity and will serve a more diverse set of needs, said Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research in Cupertino, Calif.

"It's a great example how IaaS reduced IT complexity in even exotic areas like remote access," he added. "Instead of having to evaluate, select and negotiate with separate [satellite] providers, Azure will enable these capabilities as they arrive and are needed."

It should also give Azure customers peace of mind that if remote-access challenges appear, Microsoft will have an answer, Mueller added.

But IT decision-makers who decide to tap satellite connections through Azure ExpressRoute need to make sure they're paying competitive rates and don't get locked into unfavorable contracts, he said.

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