Microsoft’s March 5 announcement about the integration of Azure Stack and Azure Government is important to enterprises of all kinds—not just government agencies—because it creates a hybrid cloud service that doesn’t need access to the outside world.
The combined services allow government cloud users to take advantage of cloud technology while also meeting requirements for handling highly sensitive information. It also allows the use of cloud technologies in areas where access to the outside world is unrealistic or impossible.
“Quite literally we’ve designed Azure Stack with the scenario of a submarine in mind,” Tom Keane, Microsoft’s head of global infrastructure for Azure told Reuters. Other likely uses besides submarines may include embassies, deployed military activities or even government contractors involved in sensitive operations. The idea is that government developers can make use of cloud technology far away from a normal cloud environment.
This is a capability that government users have needed for a very long time. So long, in fact, that I was looking for something like it when I was developing systems in the military, back in the days when even basic computers filed large air conditioned rooms.
But what I’ve learned in subsequent decades is that such capabilities can be critical for a wide range of organizations, not just the government and not just for people who are at sea or deployed overseas.
In fact, there are huge number of industries in which information is highly sensitive and where an off-site cloud service is problematic. One such industry is pharmaceuticals, in which the levels of secrecy rival those of the best intelligence agencies. But there are other industries where having your data flow through the public internet to a cloud run by somebody else could be a problem, ranging from financial services to aerospace.
Microsoft’s move into this part of the hybrid cloud arena is an important move for those industries, as well as for organizations that don’t feel that the cloud is an appropriate solution for their infrastructure needs.
The reasons for steering clear of the cloud are many. In some cases, an organization doesn’t want to depend on the public internet, or for that matter any network run by someone else. In others the concern is about performance and the latency that a cloud service can bring.
Of course there’s always the concern about security and data loss. While cloud providers have a reasonably good (but far from perfect) track record in their security arrangements, there are some types of data that simply shouldn’t be lost or exposed. In some cases such loss may be accompanied by significant penalties or even jail time, which can be career limiting.
Of course, you don’t need to have the Azure Stack isolated from the outside world. You can have it running on your on-premises server, while also having access to Azure as a cloud service.
Examples of why you might want to do this would be in manufacturing, where the amount of traffic going to the local cloud is significant, and where latency could interfere with operations. But you could still retain access to an off-premises version of Azure to save money and add flexibility where latency isn’t an issue or where the risk involved with potential data loss is lower.
What’s important about the government offering is that Microsoft is now able to offer a hybrid cloud solution that’s robust enough to meet some fairly stringent federal requirements. That means that those same solutions are available for your business if that’s what you need.
It’s worth noting that Microsoft’s Azure isn’t the only way to integrate the public cloud with an on-premises cloud solution. Amazon Web Services also supports hybrid clouds for the enterprise, and like Microsoft has a robust government business. In fact, the CIA uses AWS for its cloud requirements, although that particular agency isn’t very forthcoming about what it uses it for.
Like Azure, the AWS government cloud (or GovCloud as it’s affectionately called) can be used in an isolated instance for situations in which a connection to the outside world is unavailable. Both of these services provide realistic ways in which government IT managers can use cloud technologies. Given the difficulty of finding capital resources in the government, it’s a realistic means of providing access to modern technology.
That’s the other benefit of such hybrid cloud technology to the government. Besides providing systems to support government IT needs, it also provides a vital means of allowing government agencies to perform their missions during times of fiscal neglect. Unfortunately, the government doesn’t have the ability to scale back its service mandates and requirements to match the available funding, which means that managers need to find new ways of performing their missions without breaking the budget.
In its announcement about Azure Stack and Azure Government being integrated, Microsoft points out that Azure is one way that government IT modernization can be accomplished. The fact that it can be done with minimal capital expenditure is extremely important in supporting modernization.
But the fact is that those same advantages can also apply to the IT operations of any organization. Capital expenditures are always difficult for companies and Microsoft and Azure provide a way to minimize those. You don’t have to be in government IT to appreciate that flexibility.