“What’s at stake for Microsoft is to prove its ability to provide its clients with cloud capacities even in the most difficult conditions.”
By combining transportability and flexibility with an innovative connectivity solution (namely internet access via satellite, facilitated thanks to a partnership with SpaceX), Microsoft’s Azure Modular Datacenter makes it possible to cater for a very wide range of needs. In particular, it provides an interesting solution for edge computing – local data processing – for organisations operating in difficult environments.
While 5G and optic fibre are being deployed across the world, certain areas remain deprived of an internet connection. These can be small territories within certain countries, such as rural areas, or vaster regions in other, less developed countries, again with a significant gap between rural and urban households.
Thus, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), “3.7 billion people remain offline and are excluded from the direct benefits of the global digital economy”.
In parallel, the connectivity needs of businesses are ever growing, and for many of them, this is also the case for their cloud computing needs. One of the promises of cloud computing is to enable access to one’s data and applications from virtually anywhere.
In effect, in some places in the world, limited internet access prevents people from benefiting from cloud computing, yet it is precisely in these places that a fast, reliable connection and the availability of certain services may constitute a critical or even vital need.
This is notably the case during humanitarian relief operations following a natural disaster or a conflict. In these situations, transmitting and accessing certain information is crucial in guaranteeing the security of response teams and ensuring that in the regions affected, those in need obtain the help they need as quickly as possible.
Providing robust access everywhere
Several initiatives have emerged to provide robust internet access all across the world, be these to reduce the digital divide or to build the capacities to meet the unique requirements of certain sectors (mining industry, defence, humanitarian aid, etc.) or situations, such as a temporary interruption to terrestrial telecommunications networks and services.
The current project Taara from Google X fits into the first category. Based in particular on technologies developed within the scope of Project Loon (which relied on the use of stratospheric balloons and was abandoned by the subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. at the beginning of 2021), its aim is to provide internet in poorly served regions: “like fiber, but without the cables”. For this, Taara uses light to transmit data at super high speeds as narrow, invisible beams.
For its part, the Azure Modular Datacenter (MDC) from Microsoft fits into the second category, insofar as it makes it possible to meet the requirements of certain organisations by combining a “transportable” data centre with an innovative connectivity solution enabled thanks to a partnership with SpaceX, which guarantees access to the internet via the Starlink satellites.
The idea of a containerised data centre that is both mobile and modular is not novel. Sun Microsystems were the first to suggest the idea in 2006, followed by IBM two years later. At the time, Big Blue boasted about the possibility provided by such a system – that could be deployed anywhere in the world – to extend the capacities of an existing data centre at less cost and more quickly.
Around fifteen years later, in the era of “hyperscale” computing, what’s at stake for Microsoft with MDC is the ability to deploy its cloud IT services in a wide range of scenarios and prove its ability to provide its clients with cloud capacities even in the most difficult conditions. In doing this, they will make Azure a reference for critical applications – in industry for example – for less marginal uses than humanitarian missions or military operations.
Continuous access to IT services in the field
Revealed in October 2020 by Microsoft, the MDC can apparently run with normal, unstable or no connectivity. This transportable, modular (as many units as necessary can be assembled) data centre is, in substance, a big box filled with the servers and electronic components needed to perform calculations and process data locally (edge computing).
Secured in a reinforced container protected by electromagnetic shielding to avoid radio interference, Microsoft claims it can operate in a broad range of climates and extreme conditions.
Once deployed on site, it is to boost the available computing and storage capacities, thus enabling the running in the field of high-performance applications, the launch of real-time analyses requiring ultra-low latency, or the support of IoT uses.
It can also serve as a mobile control centre, providing IT services (and guaranteeing their availability) that are essential to the smooth operation and the security of certain humanitarian, military, or industrial missions.
A partnership with SpaceX
In order to benefit from this continuous access to essential IT services, Microsoft’s business customers will nevertheless have to subscribe to a “resilient connectivity” option for their MDC unit(s).
This connectivity, which is supposed to be safe and reliable, is obtained thanks to a module that assesses network performance continuously. In the event of disturbance, it transfers the traffic to a backup satellite connection. Alternatively, the MDC can use this means of internet access as the main connection when there is no other network available.
In order to achieve this, Microsoft has established a series of partnerships with satellite operators, and in particular with SpaceX in the scope of the new Azure Space offer presented a few days before the launch of the MDC.
In 2018, the company founded by Elon Musk launched the Starlink project, based on the deployment of a constellation of several thousand telecommunications satellites placed in Low Earth Orbit, with the aim of providing high-speed internet in areas that are poorly covered by terrestrial technologies. Microsoft’s portable data centre will thus be able to connect to the SpaceX satellites.