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Standing out From the Cloud: SES CEO on Microsoft Azure Deal

By Mark Holmes | September 9, 2019
SES CEO Steve Collar. Photo: SES

SES CEO Steve Collar. Photo: SES

SES CEO Steve Collar’s head may be in the clouds after a recent deal with Microsoft, but in this case, being in the cloud is not a bad thing. SES kicked off a busy week of trade shows with a huge announcement as the IT giant looks to gain an advantage in verticals such as broadcasting, maritime, video, oil and gas, among others. It is not SES’ only recent major deal with an IT company, as this follows on from an agreement with IBM.

SES sees this deal as a wide-ranging collaboration designed to power the cloud-scale era with intelligent automation and orchestration, cloud-based video services, and direct satellite connectivity for Microsoft Azure customers.

For example, SES will be able to provide dedicated, private network connectivity from any vessel, airplane, enterprise, energy, or government site in the world to Microsoft Azure via its multi-orbit satellite systems. As a partner of Azure ExpressRoute, SES will provide global reach and fiber-like high-performance to Azure customers via its complete portfolio of Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) satellites, Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) O3b constellation, global gateway network, and core terrestrial network infrastructure around the world.

In the broadcast arena, SES is working with Microsoft to create a broadcast-grade managed video offering on Azure. The new cloud service will bring scale, flexibility and quality assurance to the entire video delivery value chain — from content ingest to playout to delivery — to help broadcasters keep pace with consumer demand for a premium viewing experience on various devices.

Via Satellite exclusively caught up with Collar to talk all things Microsoft, and why this deal is a major one for the operator.

VIA SATELLITE: Can you tell us from an SES perspective, the significance of this overarching deal with Microsoft? What does this mean in terms of SES’ business?

Collar: First and foremost, this is a collaboration with Microsoft, a partnership that starts today and has depth and breadth across our business. I expect this to be a long and fruitful partnership and, like all good partnerships, it brings great value to SES, to Microsoft, and to our joint customers who will ultimately benefit the most from this innovation and collaboration.

As a certified and approved ExpressRoute partner, we are able to connect high value Azure users in some of the world’s most underserved and hard to reach locations. Offshore platforms, cruise ships, aircraft, governments, and fixed networks at the edge will all be enabled and empowered by the high throughput, high performance, dedicated access to Azure through our global, multi-orbit satellite fleet and terrestrial backbone. Our network becomes significantly more valuable to our customers, turbo-charging the services that we can offer by virtue of fully certified and dedicated connections into Azure. High value workflows can now be seamlessly spun up in the cloud allowing our customers to manage their businesses more efficiently. The potential is enormous, and the benefits are profound.

That’s not all. We are also creating a broadcast-grade managed video offering, powered by Azure. This new cloud-based media service will bring scale, flexibility, and quality assurance to the entire video delivery value chain and help broadcasters deliver a premium viewing experience on a variety of devices. Playout, encoding and transcoding can now be accessed in the cloud, and combined with SES360, a tool that enables our customers to manage and manipulate their content.

VIA SATELLITE: Can you give us some background — how did the deal come about? How long have you been working on this, as it seems pretty complex?

Collar: In terms of the way this came about, I would compliment Microsoft on their mindset and their way of working. They probably do partnerships better than anyone else and we are learning from them. From the first moment, it is about forming a relationship and a way of working that is good for both their business and for yours, and that combination brings uniqueness and value to the market.

I would say that these deals have probably been a year in the making, and this certainly does not mark the end of our work together — but the beginning. We will continue to look at ways to integrate our network into the cloud where we can extend and bring value to Microsoft’s customers and network and give them access to our customers operating in video, mobility, big data, oil and gas, aero, cruise, etc.

Our sectors are generating huge amounts of data and can all benefit from big data analytics to provide actionable insights so that they can run their businesses more efficiently. The cloud is the right place for them to do so, rather than relying on local, home-grown solutions. An Azure-powered network adds tremendous value to SES’ [network]. It is also game-changing for Microsoft since they cannot necessarily connect these high value sites through traditional terrestrial networks. It works for everybody, and it’s what makes the partnership brilliant.

VIA SATELLITE: Where do you rank this deal? 

Collar: It is early days, but this deal feels exciting and significant as it shows where we are as a company, what we are prioritizing, and how we are moving the industry forward. Over the last few weeks we have made a number of announcements that are coherent and complementary. They form part of a broader strategy to enable our network and our customers with effortless, state-of-the-art solutions that happen to be delivered over satellite. We are adopting the Open Networking Automation Platform (ONAP), an open software platform designed for orchestrating the delivery of new services in an automated operational environment. The implementation of ONAP with Amdocs will leverage Azure. A number of the network functions that we will make available to our customers are native in Azure.

Similarly, we announced ARC, which stands for Adaptive Resource Control, our software system for dynamic resource allocation across our satellites and ground assets. Each O3b mPOWER satellite will have more than 5,000 beams that can be instantaneously spun up and taken down. That means that the complete communications system will have about 40,000 beams and hundreds of thousands of endpoints with complete flexibility as to how we assign bandwidth and power. To manage this, we need an autonomous “brain” that can dynamically allocate bandwidth across the network. That is what ARC will do for us and, of course, it will integrate with ONAP and will be designed from the start to be controlled in an ONAP environment.

The O3b mPOWER ecosystem is an amazingly flexible communication network. The dynamic ARC system, ONAP control and automation and Azure are at the heart of it, and our partnership with Microsoft is a very important part of the puzzle. We are ready for a cloud-scale future.

VIA SATELLITE: How do you think the partnership will give you a competitive advantage in areas such as government, enterprise, maritime, and aero? What are the benefits of being a partner with Azure ExpressRoute?

Collar: I think it is big and the value will grow over time. Our customers generate tons of data. This data is often wasted because the computing power available locally is limited. If they operate Azure, and in particular, operate in a connected mode rather than in a disconnected mode, they can organize and sort their data in real time and use the insights provided to inform the way they run their business. This can save them money, drive higher revenue, or improve customer experience and satisfaction.

As SES, we become a much more valued partner for our customers by working with Azure. We are not just a connectivity provider anymore. We are an intelligent, connected cloud provider. We can leverage the scale of our network and provide our customers with access to services that they would likely not be able to obtain independently. And we do this over the highest-performing, most diverse, and most flexible satellite network available. We can tune network performance, application-by-application, based on latency, throughput, cost, availability, and more.

We are the only satellite network that is MEF certified. That is important because it means SES-enabled ethernet services are certified to perform in an equivalent way to terrestrial fiber services and we can seamlessly integrate into terrestrial networks. We have the flexibility to route our customers across our MEO and GEO fleets and we are building out intelligent software defined networks that integrate seamlessly into terrestrial networks. I don’t believe that anyone else is doing this or can bring this range of services and solutions to its customers.

VIA SATELLITE: What are the likely numbers of Azure customers that might ultimately end up using a satellite connection?

Collar: We already have a number of shared customers between SES and Microsoft. This is low hanging fruit and an opportunity straight away to significantly improve the experience for those customers, join the dots, and improve their experience with Azure.

Over time it may well influence customers as to which cloud provider they choose to work with. This is where the greenfield opportunity comes: customers that are neither ours or Microsoft’s, that we can go to with a completely different set of capabilities and make those capabilities super relevant to them. We also have a number of customers that have never seriously considered the benefits of a cloud-based network.

Governments and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are prime candidates in my view. They work in austere locations, very hard to reach places — and the number of local servers, infrastructure, and people drives huge cost for them. If we can provide seamless access to cloud services over a high-performance network, if they can now avail themselves of analytics and network functions in the cloud, this intelligent connectivity becomes massively valuable. It will substantially reduce the cost and complexity of deployment and makes everything scalable.

VIA SATELLITE: We know that video is still an important part of operators’ business, particularly a company like SES. Are we likely to see more of these types of deals with Microsoft than the traditional “broadcaster” deals we have seen in the past? 

Collar: We are the largest provider of video distribution over satellite on the planet. We have evolved from being broadcast only into a hybrid business where we are now delivering services to add value to our customers. Our partnership with Microsoft adds a substantial layer to the existing suite of services that we provide, allowing our customers to gain access to broadcast quality encoding, transcoding and playout from the cloud. This flexibility and scalability are enhanced with the integration of SES 360, an in-house platform that enables customers to access, organize, and manage their content seamlessly. Placing our customers at the center of our network and providing tools that allow them to manage and operate their networks using the power of Azure is a big step forward. 

VIA SATELLITE: How significant a deal is this from a revenue perspective? Can you tell us about revenue generation prospects for this deal?

Collar: This is a partnership. This is beyond Microsoft being a customer of SES or SES being a customer of Microsoft. To me, that is what makes it so interesting. Not only do we bring value to each other, we bring value to our customers. If we get this right, our revenue will be seriously enhanced as a result and so will Microsoft’s and, in the process, our customers will get a better service. This is the model and I couldn’t be happier with it.  

VIA SATELLITE: Can you give us timelines as to the rollout of this service? When did you expect the first customers to sign up?

Collar: The reason for the announcement today is that we have connected the networks, validated the services and demonstrated to our and Microsoft’s satisfaction that we are ready for primetime. We are now offering ExpressRoute to our customers as is Microsoft, and we are collaborating to provide broadcast-grade video playout in the cloud. We are open for business, and the plan is to drive our proposition into the market and get customers signed up and benefiting from the service. 

VIA SATELLITE: SES has announced deals with the likes of IBM, and now Microsoft. Can we expect more major deals with well-known IT companies over the next year or so?

 Collar: I would not rule it in or out, but this is about our partnership with Microsoft, and I am excited about it because of the value we bring to each other. As I said, Microsoft has a philosophy that is centered around partnership and probably does it as well as anyone. We are excited to be learning from them on their approach to partnerships and ecosystems, something that is increasingly relevant to our world. It is transformational to our industry and I intend SES to be at the forefront of this transformation.