Microsoft Unveils Top Secret Cloud for Government


The move comes among an array of other cloud-driving announcements.

Microsoft completed the buildout of a new, top secret cloud service for federal agencies, aiming to host some of the government’s most sensitive workloads.

The product—Azure Government Top Secret—is listed among an array of new cloud-centered offerings the company’s Corporate Vice President of Azure Global Tom Keane unveiled in a blogpost early Monday, kicking off the company’s Government Leaders Summit. 

“We've been working with the government on building this top secret cloud for some time,” Keane told Nextgov in an interview Thursday, adding that the federal accreditation process for the product is “well underway.” 

Cloud service providers that work with the Pentagon must prove that they abide by specific security requirements depending on the sensitivity of the data they will host. Lower “impact levels” handle data cleared for public release, while impact level six, or IL6, encompasses classified national security information. That level is right below the highest level of “Top Secret” for classified material.

Earlier this year, Azure Government Secret received provisional authority to operate at IL6. Cloud rival Amazon Web Services is the only company cleared to host the government’s most highly classified, top secret materials in the cloud.

Azure Top Secret will mark a “natural extension” to the cloud-based services intelligence community and Pentagon agencies are already tapping into, Keane noted. Since the beginning of its cloud journey almost a decade ago, Microsoft’s put forth heavy investments and energy into connectivity, data centers and personnel to underpin its products. But Keane emphasized “one of the biggest places that [the company’s] invested in is around commercial parity,” which he explained allows those running at the highest security classification to have the exact same features that a regular commercial customer would see.  

“We think that this is a unique and differentiated capability—and something that our government customers have been asking us very clearly for,” Keane said. 

Achieving IL6 is a minimum requirement Microsoft must meet as part of the Defense Department’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, cloud contract. But the long-delayed multibillion-dollar contract that the Pentagon has awarded to Microsoft twice remains tied up in a court battle with AWS.

Keane did not clarify whether Microsoft has been able to begin moving data or initiate workloads in light of the last court junction.

“We appreciate the process that the [DOD] has gone through and the re-award of the JEDI commission to Microsoft, and we're excited to get to work to help the men and women in uniform, and do that with JEDI,” he said. “Separate to JEDI, as you might imagine, we work extensively across the Department of Defense with the Army, the Air Force, Navy, major agencies, and more—and during COVID, that's been particularly true.”

Keane explained that now “hundreds of thousands” of Defense employees have been making use of Microsoft Teams during the pandemic. Since the novel coronavirus started to disrupt all aspects of life in early March, the company's commercial and federal customers have accelerated the use of needed digital modernization tools to better enable their employees to safely work from home.

“We've seen three years of digital transformation in three months—and that's definitely held true with a lot of government customers,” Keane said.

With that in mind, Microsoft also made a move to make its Windows Virtual Desktop available to IL4 and IL5 customers, as revealed in this latest blogpost.

“So, it's secure. It's also cloud-based, it's up to date,” Keane noted. “And definitely, we have accelerated our work here as a result of what our customers are asking for as they battle COVID.”

Among a range of other announcements, including new functionality within Azure Government Secret, the company also unveiled updates to its tactical edge portfolio for federal customers.  

“What edge to us means is that you can use Microsoft technology and cloud computing anywhere to solve any problem—and this doesn't require that you've got a perfect connection or that you're sitting in a pristine office,” Keane said. “Rather, you can take our technology to solve your hottest problems wherever you are.”

New, first-party edge devices could enable users to boost access to artificial intelligence capabilities, or leverage satellite or other data quickly in more disconnected environments.

“The smallest fits in a backpack and you can carry it around,” he said.

Each of the offerings links to Microsoft’s Modular Datacenter, which Keane called a “40-foot long, 40,000-pound satellite-connected solution.” It essentially offers what his blog post said is “datacenter scale compute and storage resources for areas in which adverse conditions, disrupted network availability, and limited access to specialized infrastructure would typically prohibit cloud computing.” Microsoft’s offering across the different form factors allows users to run Azure capabilities, even in realms with bad connectivity. 

“You can build an application in the hyperscale cloud and run it at the edge, or you can build it to the edge and then send data to the hyperscale cloud,” Keane said.

This announcement ties into the company’s increasingly sharp focus on efforts around outer space. Together with SpaceX and SES, for instance, Microsoft recently debuted a cloud-computing service for efforts beyond planet Earth. Keane added that it reflects growing interest expressed by both public and private partners for emerging edge offerings.

“All of those different form factors are having a lot of pickup and a lot of popularity,” Keane said.