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Microsoft Ignite: Azure Advances Across Five Frontiers

To kick off the Microsoft Ignite virtual conference, CEO Satya Nadella made a bold claim about the public cloud with the second-largest market share behind Amazon.

"Azure is the world's computer," Nadella said Tuesday. To be sure, Microsoft never gives up a market without a prolonged and ferocious fight. Nadella and Microsoft's marketers, engineers and top investors surely all dream of overtaking Amazon Web Services (AWS) for the No. 1 spot someday.

The statement, however, wasn't primarily about punching up on market share. Nadella was setting up a discussion of at least five ways that Microsoft is pushing into different -- mostly physical -- frontiers with its public cloud.

One is sheer datacenter mass, and that is nothing new. Nadella ticked off the standard metric that Microsoft updates at every conference: "We're committed to bringing the power of Azure wherever you are. We have more datacenter regions than any other provider now, 61 of them." Because Microsoft, Google and AWS all classify and count their datacenters differently, it's not that meaningful or definitive a metric in relation to competitors. But it's fair to say Microsoft is in the conversation about who has the largest datacenter footprint.

Another frontier is Microsoft's push to the edge. General availability announced at Ignite for a new Azure SQL Edge database for Internet of Things (IoT) devices is just one more example of Microsoft's intense focus on getting more power to the edge of the cloud. Another example: a new Azure Stack Edge appliance capable of being carried in a backpack. Technicians could physically walk the Azure cloud to the ends of the earth. Microsoft's mix of cloud, on-premises and hybrid expertise makes the company's case as an edge leader especially compelling.

The next frontier is itself being created by all that compute power -- it's essentially a second Earth. Interestingly, Nadella made that point while comparing and contrasting old and new versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator. "The new Flight Simulator is much more than a game. It exemplifies the power of that full technology stack from Azure AI to Bing Maps and spatial computing to Xbox, which can come together to create a literal digital twin of the planet down to the trees in your neighborhood park," he said. Of course, Google's been creating and refining its own version of Earth's digital twin for a long time.

And then there were the two frontiers where Microsoft is getting the most attention now. "We're not stopping at land," Nadella said. "We're extending Azure from under the sea to outer space."

The under sea frontier is a reference to Project Natick, a container-sized metal datacenter module that Microsoft plunked into the North Sea off Scotland's Orkney Islands in 2018 as a proof-of-concept. Microsoft hauled the datacenter back out of the water in July and reported on the results earlier this month.

"We deployed a datacenter 117 feet deep off the Northern Isles proving the reliability of the world's first full scale subsea datacenter. The failure rate was one-eighth what we saw on land," Nadella said.

And new this week, Microsoft is chasing AWS into space with Azure Orbital. Well, if you can call building ground stations to download satellite data going into space. Yves Pitsch, principal program manager of Azure Networking, defined Azure Orbital in a blog:

The new ground station service enables satellite operators to communicate to and control their satellites, process data, and scale operations directly with Microsoft Azure. With Azure Orbital, the ground segment, including the ground stations, network, and procedures, becomes a digital platform now integrated into Azure and complemented by many partners.

Microsoft already has several partners for Azure Orbital, including Amergint, Kratos, KSAT, Kubos, Viasat and US Electrodynamics Inc. But Microsoft has established competition, as well. The AWS Ground Station service launched in 2018 with subsequent expansions and several named customers.

Win, place or show in those five frontiers -- datacenter footprint, edge, digital twin, under water, outer space -- Nadella made clear that Azure will compete in each.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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