Compare Azure Government vs. commercial cloud offering

For U.S. government agents and contractors, there are two flavors of Microsoft’s cloud platform that are available: Azure Government and the general-purpose commercial cloud. But should you always choose the government cloud?Azure Government is a specialized segment of Azure that is optimized for use by government agencies and contractors based in the United States. It separates infrastructure from the rest of the Azure platform, ensuring that all data resides within the United States to meet compliance and security requirements. Microsoft also offers Azure Government Secret, a variant of Azure Government tailored to U.S. federal agencies that work with classified national security data.However, features only available in the commercial cloud offering may prove more beneficial to an organization, such as lower cost and compliance strategy support. Consider these and other key differences before selecting the cloud platform that is most beneficial for your organization’s workloads.
Key differences between Azure Government and commercial cloud
The main differences between the Azure Government cloud and Azure’s commercial cloud offerings include the following.
Target audiences
Azure’s commercial offering is designed for any organization requiring a public cloud platform. In contrast, only specific types of organizations are eligible to use Azure Government, including the following:

U.S. government agencies at the federal, state or local levels.
Tribal entities based in the U.S.
Contractors that build or host apps or services for U.S. government agencies.
Businesses that manage data owned or controlled by U.S. government agencies.

If your organization does not fall within one of these categories, Azure rejects your application to use its government cloud offering.
Microsoft offers a separate solution, called Microsoft Cloud for Sovereignty, that can help government organizations in other parts of the world meet their compliance and security needs; however, the services are not as extensive as those of Azure Government. They are also not tailored to the needs of government agencies in any specific country.
Compliance and certifications
Both Azure Government and the commercial cloud meet compliance requirements that are relevant to U.S. government agencies.
Azure Government offers enhancements that can make it easier to ensure compliance or meet stricter compliance standards. For example, while Azure’s commercial and government cloud both comply with Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, or FedRAMP, standards, only Azure Government ensures that Microsoft employees who can access sensitive systems and data are screened and based in the U.S.
Similarly, Criminal Justice Investigation Services’ (CJIS) compliance requires that cloud service provider employees who access unencrypted data undergo a background check that includes fingerprinting. Only employees of the Azure Government offering are subject to this type of check. As a result, organizations that use the Azure commercial cloud and need to comply with CJIS have to avoid storing data in unencrypted form — whereas, on Azure Government, unencrypted data storage is acceptable.
Data residency
Data centers for Azure Government are based in the U.S. Azure Government ensures that data traveling over the network never leaves the U.S., so it meets data residency requirements by default.
Azure’s commercial cloud offers access to a variety of data centers globally, and it’s possible to use the U.S. data centers to meet data residency requirements. However, doing so requires more planning and effort on the part of the organization, which needs to select U.S. regions to deploy Azure workloads and set up networking rules that prevent data from leaving the U.S.

Service and feature availability
Most commercial cloud services are also available in Azure Government. However, in certain cases, some features are restricted to only one cloud — although the differences here tend to be minor.
For example, document tracking and revocation are not available in some Azure Government versions of Microsoft 365. Additionally, recommendation exemption rules within Microsoft Defender are not supported in Azure Government, although they are available in the commercial cloud as a public preview feature. In some cases, services and features vary between regions within the same cloud, so a feature available in one region of the Azure commercial cloud might not be available in another.
Cloud costs
The cost of Azure services can vary widely depending on which region they are hosted in and the pricing plan. Generally, services on Azure Government cost a bit more than equivalent services in the commercial cloud.
For instance, a B2ts v2 instance on Azure VMs costs $7.592 per month using pay-as-you-go pricing on Azure commercial in the East U.S. region. The same instance using the same type of pricing costs $8.906 per month — about 15% more — in the Virginia region of Azure Government.
Microsoft offers different sets of support plans for Azure Government and the commercial cloud. In most respects, the plans are similar. Both sets include four tiers:

Basic. For organizations just getting started.
Developer. For trial and nonproduction environments.
Standard. For production workload environments.
Professional Direct. For mission-critical workloads.

Also, both include the same response times for critical incidents. However, an important difference is that Azure Government support pricing is not publicly available, while the cost of general Azure commercial support services is.
Azure Government support plans don’t include special guidance to meet complex government compliance requirements. Azure Government makes it easier to align with compliance mandates, but determining which mandates to prioritize and how best to meet them is ultimately up to the customer. Azure Government support plans cover technical support, not compliance strategy.

Azure Government is not strictly necessary in most cases for organizations facing government compliance mandates.

What to use when: Azure Government vs. commercial
So, is Azure Government the better choice for U.S. government agencies and contractors?
The answer depends on the sensitivity of a given cloud workload. If you need to deploy applications or data that must meet particularly stringent privacy, security or compliance standards associated with U.S. government requirements, Azure Government makes it easier to do so.
That said, using Azure Government is not strictly necessary for organizations facing government compliance mandates. Azure’s commercial offering is similar to Azure Government in areas like the availability of U.S.-based data centers, compliance certifications, service availability and support options. The main difference is that Azure Government includes stricter controls by default, which reduces the burden placed on organizations to meet compliance and security mandates on their own.
Whether that benefit is worth the potentially higher costs of Azure Government depends on how challenging it is for your organization to meet the relevant requirements without the features of Azure Government.
It’s possible to use both Azure Government and the commercial offering at the same time. It may make sense to do this if you have particularly sensitive workloads that benefit from Azure Government but want to keep the rest of your workloads in the commercial cloud with a wider range of service and feature options for a lower price.
Chris Tozzi is a freelance writer, research adviser, and professor of IT and society who has previously worked as a journalist and Linux systems administrator.