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Microsoft Opens Private High-Speed Cloud Connections for Government

The company hopes to drive cloud usage with 10 GB connection speeds and hard-wired access to servers.

Microsoft has expanded its government offerings again, this time with a service that promises a private high-speed connection to the company’s data centers.

In a Sept. 29 blog post, Microsoft announced the addition of ExpressRoute to its Azure Government cloud. The connection tool is meant to manage petabytes of data (1 petabyte equals 1 million gigabytes), and the server connection bypasses the public Internet entirely. The obvious benefit of the feature is security, but marketing executives in Redmond, Wash., are also selling ExpressRoute on its big data processing capacity — something it reports to be 100 times faster, with data transfer speeds (throughput) at nearly 10 GB per second.

ExpressRoute was first launched to the private sector in 2014, and after a year of fine tuning, it's ready for use by federal, state and local jurisdictions. Part of this package entails a cloud that meets strict security standards dictated under the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS), a standard that requires onsite data center inspections and background checks on data center operators.

Strategically, the rigid security of the technology — which is essentially a hardwired connection to Microsoft’s servers — could entice the public sector to trust more of its digital infrastructure to Microsoft. This was the case in Riverside County, Calif., where Kelleen Caster, CIO for the city’s Department of Public Social Services, said “reliability” was a critical factor in the decision to jump to Microsoft’s Government Cloud.

“ExpressRoute is allowing us to migrate our data center into Microsoft Azure Government with the confidence that our workloads hosted in the cloud will be as accessible and reliable as our on-premises data center,” Caster said in the press release.

Other launch partners include AT&T, Verizon, and telecommunications providers Equinix and Level3.

Microsoft Azure Networking Engineer Yousef Khalidi gave Government Technology additional details and a bit of background on the product's release.

Can you summarize the development of ExpressRoute — how has the technology progressed?
ExpressRoute for Azure Government [cloud] is a service that provides government customers a dedicated and private network connection between their on-premises data centers and the Azure Government platform. Microsoft launched Azure ExpressRoute in 2014 and announced it would offer an ExpressRoute option for Office365 in March 2015. The development and availability of ExpressRoute is a natural extension of our commitment to providing customers with the technology and services that help support their accessibility, reliability and security needs.

Within current government connection service offerings, what challenges do ExpressRoute remedy, and what functionality is enhanced?
When it comes to transitioning to the cloud, many government agencies want to reap the benefits of the cloud agility, speed and cost-savings but a big concern across federal, state and local is whether the cloud service is secure and reliable enough to manage and store sensitive data. With the Internet being part of the equation, governments are hesitant to embrace the cloud, as security and privacy issues are often perceived as a downfall of the cloud. ExpressRoute for Azure Government is an ideal option for government customers who want to move their data centers to the cloud, as it offers higher security, reliability and speeds with lower latencies than typical connections over the Internet.

Upon launch, how many jurisdictions are using ExpressRoute and how would you describe the typical government customer you’re targeting?
Riverside County, Calif., which is composed of more than 20 cities and represents more than 2 million people, is moving its entire data center over to Azure Government with the help of ExpressRoute for Azure Government. Planet Technologies, a Microsoft partner, is working directly with the county on its migration. ExpressRoute for Azure Government is designed to help a broad range of federal, state and local agencies, but is particularly relevant for agencies looking to move entire data centers or complete workloads over to Azure Government.  

What metrics will Microsoft use to measure the effectiveness of ExpressRoute?
ExpressRoute is a key enabler for moving and connecting workloads from on premises to the cloud as it provides secure back-end connectivity to the cloud. We believe that the private connectivity provided by ExpressRoute is vital for enabling hybrid apps [apps working with government and private servers]. Based on our experience with Azure ExpressRoute, we believe we’ll see a similar volume of adoption of ExpressRoute for Azure Government, largely because of this hybrid app enablement.

What features of the service/product are most competitive against current market vendors such as IBM?
ExpressRoute for Azure Government is unique and differentiated from other solutions in a couple of ways:

1. ExpressRoute is a separate, physical and network-isolated instance of Azure Government that is operated by screened U.S. personnel. It does not require customers to use a commercial cloud solution to access a government-specific service.

2. Separate data centers have been deployed specifically for Azure Government, with sites currently available in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and expansion to future sites on the horizon.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.