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Azure Orbital launches Microsoft into cloud-based space race with Amazon

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

The launch of Azure Orbital, timed for this week’s 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,’ ” , 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.”

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 , Russinovich will be taking advantage of a Microsoft ground station that’s situated near the company’s in Quincy, Wash. But to extend Azure Orbital’s reach even farther, Microsoft will be relying on a host of partnerships with other companies.

Norway-based 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 , 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 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 and 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 . Microsoft has also set up a , plus an .

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