What a Top Secret Cloud Means for Microsoft


A commercial platform announced last year is now generally available to government customers.

Microsoft said on Monday that its new cloud service designed explicitly for some of the most sensitive federal data is cleared to handle government workloads at all classification levels.

The Azure Government Top Secret platform, which was first unveiled among a suite of new products in December, is generally available to agency customers as of this week. It underpins more than 60 initial services now, with others in the pipeline.

“One of the things we think is different about what we're doing is we're bringing commercial technology at commercial speed into our Top Secret cloud and keeping that up-to-date and fresh with the same innovation that our commercial customers get at the same speed that they get it,” Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of Azure Global Tom Keane told Nextgov in an interview last week.

Keane published a blog post on Monday that sheds light on the tech giant’s new cloud capabilities. 

In it, he confirmed Microsoft achieved an ATO, or authorization to operate the infrastructure in accordance with the Intelligence Community Directive, or ICD 503, which governs intelligence agencies’ use of IT systems. The company also reached an ATO for facilities to meet ICD 705 security standards. According to Keane’s post, the company’s “new air-gapped regions of Azure will accelerate the delivery of national security workloads classified at the U.S. top secret level.” 

Microsoft didn’t disclose the locations of those regions, though Keane said in the interview that they involve two that are more than 100 miles apart. “In doing that, we have a level of disaster recovery and resiliency that we think is pretty differentiated,” and necessary for some of agencies’ most important-to-secure workloads, he noted.

Amazon Web Services was the first company to launch top secret regions that were deemed fit to host the government’s exceedingly private data.

“So, this levels the playing field and provides the government with a choice—because previously, it was just a one-horse race,” Keane said.

The services provided by this capability will help human analysts rapidly extract intelligence and identify trends and anomalies in data to lead to new insights. 

“When we talk to the government, absolutely a common theme is around the fact that there is just an ever-increasing amount of data, and how do you fuse the data gathered from different sources? How do you make sense of that data?” Keane explained. “And, you know, my favorite quote is from a government customer who said, ‘we're aren’t looking for a needle in a haystack—we're looking for a needle in a pile of needles.’ And so trying to find what is truly important, and what those insights are, is probably the number one use case.”

The cloud executive highlighted some existing government-aligned applications already making a difference. Under the realm of weather modeling, Microsoft worked alongside the Navy to hone in on applying technology to better grasp unseasonal and unpredictable tropical storms. “On the Gulf Coast, we were seeing weather patterns that had never occurred before in history,” Keane explained. The military branch leaned into high-performance computing to drive understanding from and apply reason over that data.

To Keane, that’s “a really phenomenal cloud use case—where, on-premise, you simply couldn't do it.” He added that Microsoft and the Army are conducting similar work and also incorporating artificial intelligence along the North Atlantic coastline to better plan for storm surges.

The company is a long-time industry partner within the defense and intelligence communities. Microsoft was recently awarded a more than $20 billion contract to deliver its custom HoloLens augmented reality kits to military personnel. It was also listed among five companies chosen to fulfill the Central Intelligence Agency’s multibillion-dollar Commercial Cloud Enterprise or C2E contract.

And for years, Microsoft was competing against AWS for the Pentagon’s $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure or JEDI contract, which required a top secret classification to be met by a certain time. Microsoft was awarded the JEDI contract twice and was working toward proper approvals. But that contract went through contentious and prolonged litigation before it eventually was officially canceled by DOD earlier this summer. 

At that point, defense officials announced the JEDI effort would be replaced by the Joint Warfighter Cloud Capability, or JWCC, and identified Microsoft and AWS as two companies that could meet the department’s current cloud needs. Still, other cloud service providers could be considered.

“A top secret cloud is really important because—as we look at JWCC—top secret is a requirement. So, we're not just announcing a cloud and capabilities,” Keane said. “We're also demonstrating our readiness for JWCC and participating in that.”

The company’s Top Secret capabilities could also prove useful for work with the National Security Agency down the line. Microsoft filed a bid protest over NSA’s $10 billion cloud contract recently awarded to AWS, dubbed WildandStormy.

Considering Microsoft’s cloud-aligned future, Keane said exciting things are in the pipeline for the next half-decade. He pointed to the HoloLens agreement and new Azure Space capabilities. Through the latter, officials aim to bring connectivity with the edge to typically fully disconnected scenarios beyond planet Earth.  

“We're using government as a way to continually push the bounds on what our technology can do,” Keane said.