Tom Keane and Microsoft Azure take cloud computing to space and back

  (photo credit: PIXABAY)
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

As is true for any new product or idea, adoption is driven by more than just perceived benefits and quantifiable value-added. Successfully onboarding new users, rolling out new products for innovative new use cases and bringing about meaningful change for users who may not know they need it takes time. It also takes a deep understanding of user requirements, concerns, and pain points. Tom Keane, a former senior Microsoft executive who spent the last 21 years running international business units and driving global engineering and adoption of Azure, Microsoft Corp.’s cloud computing platform, had to grapple with many of these issues head-on. This was particularly true when dealing with the regulatory, legal, and compliance issues pertaining to cloud services and digital sovereignty in large, complex markets such as China. The outcome, however, has been phenomenal. Cloud computing is now seen by many not as a luxury but a business necessity, and Azure today powers trillions of dollars of global GDP and is used by thousands of businesses and millions of individuals around the world.

The Hard-Selling Benefits of Cloud Computing

“In the past, engineers used to be limited by how much computing power they had access to,” Tom Keane says. “Cloud computing removes this constraint so that you can create a more valuable business, a more successful business, a more profitable business.” With Azure, Tom Keane and Microsoft could solve customer problems better, and this is one reason why critical workloads have quickly migrated to cloud infrastructures from legacy systems and outdated approaches of the past.

Cloud platforms such as Azure lower the operational costs of maintaining IT. These cloud services are also global, convenient to use, infinitely scalable, and easily accessible. These benefits reduce the time it takes to create and deploy new applications, services, products, and offerings. With unlimited storage capacity, automated backups reduced administrative and management overheads, effective subscription models, and seamless collaboration and mobility, it is no surprise that cloud computing has become as popular as it is.

Tom Keane’s Blueprint for Product and Service Deployment

All this success may make reaching new markets and users look and sound easier than it was. “Since I was leading the team responsible for the global expansion of Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform and putting Azure into dozens of countries around the world, we had to navigate global regulatory policy and sentiment needs,” Tom Keane said. “We also had to help our customers across a wide variety of industries adopt that.” This involved working with hundreds of governments and regulatory bodies, understanding the digital sovereignty needs of different countries and companies, and building a fast, resilient, and effective cloud infrastructure that met the varied needs of Microsoft’s diverse customer base. “We needed to make sure that our solutions worked for, for example, our multinational customers like Coca-Cola, General Motors, Ford, and L'Oreal, all of whom do business in many different global markets,” Tom Keane said. Understanding customer needs in different markets, niches, and countries helped Tom Keane lead the expansion and growth of Azure into over 30 countries around the world.

Tom Keane has also emphasized the use of product-led growth when deploying new products and entering new markets. “I think that Microsoft any software company builds some of its best technology when we listen closely to our customers regarding how we can build technology that solves their hardest problems,” Tom Keane said. “We work very closely to understand our clients’ needs, and we enter all discussions with humility and a willingness to listen and learn.” This approach helped Tom Keane and the Azure team tailor solutions to specific businesses, end users, industries, and verticals. 

Tom Keane Takes Microsoft Azure Beyond the Cloud

From mainstream adoption by private sector concerns, Azure quickly grew into a cloud solutions provider of choice for the U.S. government. “I’m particularly proud of the work my team and I have done for the U.S. government over the last couple of years,” Tom Keane said. In early 2020, Tome Keane and his team launched and achieved accreditation for Azure Government Secret and Azure Government Top Secret cloud regions. Azure now supports the full range of government data in the United States. Tom Keane and his team also developed and launched a portfolio of edge devices designed to bring cloud capabilities to the farthest edges of the world. This helps to support critical mission capabilities such as national security concerns and disaster response efforts.

According to Tom Keane, the COVID-19 pandemic helped push the benefits of cloud-based infrastructure to the forefront of the agile business and global competition discussions. In particular, three factors contributed to the increased willingness of both large and small businesses to pivot toward cloud-based services from traditional tech infrastructure. This, in turn, coincided with increased cloud adoption by the government.

First, once the pandemic hit, since Microsoft was already running Azure infrastructure and building products for its customers, the company did not miss a beat. As Tom Keane said, “It continued where our engineers and our team members all moved to work remote and continued, and the service continued running, which shows the resilience of the team and the technology.” Second, since Microsoft is a public company and had to report earnings, it had to continue growing and hiring. Microsoft – and Tom Keane’s engineering teams – actually grew rapidly during the pandemic by conducting interviews virtually and performing many in-person tasks virtually.

Finally, the cloud proved that it could enable new scenarios, the use of cloud-native applications, and the creation of hybrid applications that connected seamlessly with existing infrastructures that many of Microsoft’s customers already had. For example, Tom Keane said, “The use of Microsoft Teams to be able to hold online meetings and video calls – not just for big companies but also for educational institutions and consumers – led to orders of magnitudes of growth in a period of days and weeks that we otherwise would've only previously seen in years.”

For Tom Keane, however, as exciting as these developments have been, he believes many of the best innovations and use cases are yet to come. He said, “This technology is enabling a set of new scenarios. What we're seeing right now is the benefits that that technology brings are so significant and so disruptive that that benefit is where a lot of the energy is focused right now.”

Examples of where and how Azure can be used include powering financial institutions, education platforms, healthcare systems, and supply chain operations. However, as Tom Keane said, “We more recently put our technology into space where it’s running on the International Space Station. To have partnerships with organizations like NASA and for our technology to be used to pilot new ways in which astronauts can explore space more safely is a huge step forward.”

Tom Keane also talked about more advancements in the areas of cloud computing technology in space. He said, “With the ability to connect anyone anywhere on the planet, you create a new set of scenarios that you hadn't thought about previously.” One example he gives of this is a firefighter fighting a wildfire in an isolated area who can now connect over space-based communication and access high-fidelity images that inform how they can respond to that fire. Others are a ship at sea tracking critical cargo as it moves around the planet, new space-enabled communications, and the use of geospatial technology to track, for example, cars or ships crossing a certain point of interest, such as a port or a specific roadway.

An important Microsoft product in the space niche that Tom Keane helped launch is Azure Orbital, a ground station-as-a-service product. This service provides Earth observation and communications using software. This is different from the traditional, hardware-based approach commonly in use today. This can be expensive and tends to be poorly utilized. By moving these services to the cloud, Tom Keane and his team introduce a significant amount of efficiency and agility to a niche in need of reimagination and demonstrates the power of the cloud-based innovation that Tom Keane, Microsoft, and Azure have helped businesses around the world benefit from.

Microsoft Azure and Tom Keane Come Full Circle

As the capabilities of Azure and the cloud have matured, they have quickly grown to become critical infrastructure to users and businesses around the world. “Like with any critical infrastructure, you must balance how you can continue to innovate whilst also protecting the things that run on top of that,” Tom Keane said. Tom Keane recently announced his departure from Microsoft, but after Azure’s recent strides in the areas of space and government – and after establishing Azure and cloud computing as critical infrastructure to the world – Tom Keane leaves a legacy of innovation, smart business strategy, and user-focused solutions development for others to follow.

This article was written in cooperation with Hannah Madison