Home > Defense & Intelligence > Steve Kitay of Microsoft Azure Space explains why the path to the cloud passes through space

Steve Kitay of Microsoft Azure Space explains why the path to the cloud passes through space

The past decade has witnessed a massive change in the role and importance of technology, applications, and network-enabled devices in the government. This digital transformation of the government is resulting in manual processes becoming automated, artificial intelligence (AI) being leveraged to deliver actionable insight from government data, and the streamlining of government operations, allowing personnel to focus on accomplishing their missions.

This digital transformation was arguably kickstarted by the widespread adoption of the cloud and cloud resources across the government. And it’s being driven forward by cloud-native applications that are being developed, deployed, and hosted in the cloud, where they can be accessed by government and military personnel whenever and wherever the mission requires.

While this digital transformation will only result in the government becoming more effective and efficient, it can only succeed if connectivity and access to cloud resources are ubiquitous across the globe.

The connectivity required for government and military organizations to access and utilize cloud services at the tactical edge is most effectively delivered by satellite. This is creating new collaborations and partnerships between those that operate satellite networks, and the organizations that provide cutting-edge cloud services.

One of the cloud providers leading the pack in embracing satellite connectivity is Microsoft Azure, which recently launched Azure Space, and announced a number of innovative partnerships with satellite providers, such as SES GS.

We recently sat down with Steve Kitay, the Senior Director of Azure Space at Microsoft, to discuss the trends driving the need for satellite and cloud partnerships, and how cloud services delivered via satellite could revolutionize how governments operate.

Government Satellite Report (GSR): Transitioning to the cloud has been a major initiative for the government over the course of the last few years. What types of cloud use cases are we seeing in the government? What different types of applications and workloads are being moved to the cloud by government agencies? Are mission-critical workloads making their way into the cloud?

Steve Kitay: Government agencies want to benefit from commercial cloud innovation. They want to take advantage of its speed, its scale, and its agility. Transitioning to the cloud reduces costs, provides access to the latest technologies, and diminishes the burden of having to maintain their own legacy infrastructure.

We see government agencies moving a range of workloads to the cloud to rapidly grow their mission capabilities. At the start of the COVID pandemic, we saw a rapid shift to cloud services to enable secure remote work environments through Azure Commercial and Government Clouds, and through the Office 365 productivity suites.

We’re seeing this shift to the cloud across a range of agencies. We’re working with a number of agencies, in particular, to help them use the cloud to solve their mission problems. The Department of Agriculture has leveraged a project called Farm Beats that accesses Azure’s repositories of analytics tools to understand data, and uses AI to help farmers cut costs, increase yields and sustainably grow crops that are more resilient to threats like climate change.

“When we bring (IoT and hybrid infrastructure) together, with AI running across these systems, we enter into an era of Intelligent Edge – a continually expanding set of connected systems and devices that gather and analyze information close to the physical world where the data resides and is harvested.” – Steve Kitay

The Department of Defense (DoD) is working on building out its enterprise cloud capabilities. Branches within the DoD, such as the Air Force, have deployed their own instances. Air Force Cloud One is a good example of a military branch using the cloud to provide foundational cloud capabilities, including networking, monitoring, access control, and identity management.

GSR: Are we seeing the need across different levels and organizations within the government for access to cloud solutions in the field, off-grid, and at the tactical edge? What is driving this requirement? What types of capabilities and applications are they looking to access?

Steve Kitay: The U.S. Government has been clear that they are trying to tap into commercial innovation to unlock new mission scenarios that were simply not possible before. There are two trends that we’re seeing in the government that really illustrate that.

The first trend is the Internet of Things (IoT), which utilizes smart sensors, connected devices, and other network-enabled endpoints to change the way that agencies approach problems. From equipment maintenance, to measuring air quality, to smart cities, and even military outposts, they’re implementing devices that are cloud-connected by default.

The other trend is movement towards hybrid infrastructure – or the integration of traditional datacenter infrastructure, edge devices, and the public cloud. This gives the government access to more compute capabilities in even the world’s most remote locations.

When we bring these two technology trends together, with AI running across these systems, we enter into an era of Intelligent Edge – a continually expanding set of connected systems and devices that gather and analyze information close to the physical world where the data resides and is harvested. This enables them to get real-time insights and immersive experiences that are highly responsive and contextually aware.

There is a space program that is a great example of the Intelligent Edge called the Casino Program, which was done with the Defense Innovation Unit in support of the U.S. Space Force. The rising number of satellites proliferating in low earth orbit (LEO) presents a new data challenge for the ground segment of missions—a segment that is often overlooked.

The Casino Program Office demonstrated fast, flexible, and extensible cloud commercial capabilities for ground processing in support of defense missions.  In this project, the joint Ball Aerospace and Microsoft team demonstrated the ability to transmit overhead, persistent infrared data through commercial satellites to the ground and then be processed both in the hyperscale Azure data center, as well as directly to a tactical vehicle in the field that was equipped with an Azure stack edge device.

“The need for bandwidth and cloud services in remote locations is a large and growing global challenge. The alignment and integration of the Azure cloud with satellites and terrestrial networks further enables the connected, Intelligent Edge…” – Steve Kitay

In this scenario, the overhead satellites transmitted the images of the environment, and that data was then pushed to both Azure and the Azure stack edge device where machine learning algorithms processed the images and detected certain activities and features. This machine learning identification generated insights which were converted into messages and disseminated to multiple endpoints.

This project represents a huge leap forward in reducing the time to actionable insight—if users are on the ground in a tactical edge vehicle or located at a command center, users can obtain necessary information accurately, quickly, and securely.

GSR: How else could access to cloud resources at the tactical edge or on the battlefield impact our warfighters? What could it enable them to do? What services/capabilities could it make possible for them?

Steve Kitay: Well, another great example is the Army’s IVAS program, which is bringing state-of-the-art cloud and mixed reality capability to soldiers at the tactical edge.

The IVAS headset, which is based on HoloLens and augmented by Azure cloud services, delivers a platform that keeps soldiers safer and makes them more effective. The program delivers enhanced situational awareness, enabling information sharing, and decision making for a variety of scenarios.

GSR: Microsoft has been working with satellite providers – including SES – to enable remote, off-grid access to cloud resources. Why is satellite the right choice for this?

Steve Kitay: Satellite is the right choice because space provides is a global perspective. It enables us to connect people anywhere, whether they’re in the middle of the ocean, the desert, or anywhere else on the Earth.

What is changing now with satellite communications is the type of services being offered. New services are now available with higher bandwidth and lower latencies. And space-generated data is growing exponentially, which requires expanded ground control capabilities, as well as data processing, storage, and analytics to turn that data into knowledge and actionable insights.

The need for bandwidth and cloud services in remote locations is a large and growing global challenge. The alignment and integration of the Azure cloud with satellites and terrestrial networks further enables the connected, Intelligent Edge that I referenced earlier.

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