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The Pentagon, the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense. (DoD Photo)

More and more government agencies are realizing the benefits of cloud computing, and Microsoft is poised to unveil several new updates to its cloud services for government customers Tuesday at its Government Cloud Forum.

Microsoft currently operates six cloud computing regions dedicated specifically to government customers, and supports the U.S. Department of Defense with two of those regions. Working with the government requires satisfying a host of security requirements, and a new service called Azure Government Secret will allow other agencies with strict protocols for the handling of classified information to use Azure services, said Tom Keane, head of global infrastructure for Microsoft Azure.

Azure Government Secret builds on the announcement earlier this year that Azure was cleared to serve agencies at Impact Level 5 of the Defense Information System Agency’s cloud security requirements, the second-highest level of classification. But the DoD is not the only government agency that handles sensitive information, and the new service will allow agencies working on topics classified as “Secret” in fields like energy research or law enforcement greater access to cloud computing services like artificial intelligence and translation, Keane said.

The different levels of security authorizations granted to cloud computing providers, as compiled by the Defense Information Systems Agency. (DISA Image)

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of government-backed hacking going on around the world at the moment. Even some of the lesser-known Cabinet-level government agencies have secret data that they’d like to keep within the country, and their budgets don’t always allow them to hire the best infrastructure and security talent, which is where a cloud provider like Microsoft comes in.

The new service will allow those agencies to take advantage of Azure services even when handling classified data. “Customers of Azure Government Secret will gain access to new technologies at scale and pace of innovation they’d experience in a commercial environment,” Keane said.

Microsoft also plans to make a version of its blockchain technology available for government agencies to use, after several agencies expressed interest in evaluating the blockchain — which allows two parties to conduct secure internet transactions via a shared ledger, without the need for a hackable database — in some of their efforts.

Keane thinks government customers might use blockchain technology for licensing services, voter records, of tax management. One specific example: the U.S. Department of State has expressed interest in using blockchain technology as part of helping with recovery efforts around the world, he said.

In 2011, all government agencies were ordered by the Obama administration to think cloud-first when upgrading their technology infrastructure, and despite its fondness for rolling back various initiatives of its predecessor, the policy seems to have continued in the Trump administration.

This has been a boon for cloud infrastructure and software providers, who have all rushed to build services tailored for the unique needs of government customers despite the byzantine process that often accompanies government contracts. Microsoft has been aggressive here thanks to long-standing business (and legal) relationships with government agencies, but Amazon Web Services built a cloud service for the Central Intelligence Agency and says over 2,000 government agencies are using some of its services.

Microsoft also plans to announce a few other new services for government customers at the event, held, of course, in Washington, D.C.

  • Microsoft 365, the new package of Windows 10, Office 365, and Enterprise Mobilty and Security software introduced at Inspire in June, will be generally available for government users early next year. Microsoft Teams will also be available for government users around that time.
  • Agencies interested in high-performance computing cloud services will be able to take advantage of Azure’s H-series virtual machines.
  • Citrix’s VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) will now be available for Azure Government customers.
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