Microsoft trying to blow the roof off data-center design

Microsoft's modular facility would be giant plug-and-play platform

Microsoft has seen the future of the data center, and oddly enough it's missing a roof.

Microsoft has seen the future of the data center, and oddly enough it's missing a roof.

The company's future data-center design, which will be its de facto standard in five years, is a cross between an electrical switching station, an RV-park and the closing "warehouse" scene from the 1981 film "Raiders of the Lost Ark".

The company envisions a set of prefabricated containers the size of a semi-trailer filled with as many as 2,000 preconfigured servers. The containers can be parked next to and plugged into pre-built mechanical, electrical, cooling and security components. In essence, it is a giant collection of boxes and pluggable components that can grow and shrink based on need.

The container portion of the idea is nothing revolutionary. Microsoft is installing them in its Chicago data center. Sun introduced a server container called Project Blackbox in 2006 and Google received a patent in 2007 on its "mobile data center" stored in a standard shipping container, which unlike Sun's Blackbox, could be clustered in the same modular fashion that Microsoft is proposing.

The container idea also has its critics who say they are rife with electrical and mechanical concerns, have power management and cooling issues, present a single point of failure, and are susceptible to damage during shipping.

Microsoft, however, is not just talking about containers, but the configuration of the entire data center.

The company this week unveiled what it is calling its "Generation 4 Modular Data Center" plan, a blueprint that will define its cloud data-center infrastructure in the next five years.

The data centers have four walls and a sophisticated perimeter security system, but are open to the elements as they lack a roof. Trucks wheel the boxes into the enclosure where they are connected to power/cooling stations before being brought online.

It's a bold plan to drive industry thinking about how to construct and operate data centers in a world of capacity spikes, real-time needs for computing power and expanding green initiatives.

"We believe it is one of the most revolutionary changes to happen to data centers in the last 30 years," said Michael Manos, general manager of global foundation services for Microsoft, in his blog introducing Microsoft's Generation 4 plan.

BusinessWeek reported last month that Microsoft said it was going to "reinvent the infrastructure of our industry" by building some 20 data centers that can carry a price tag as much as $1 billion apiece.

"In short, we are striving to bring Henry Ford's Model T factory to the data center," Manos said. "In our design process, we questioned everything. You may notice there is no roof and some might be uncomfortable with this. We explored the need of one and throughout our research we got some surprising (positive) results that showed one wasn't needed."

Microsoft says all the pieces needed to construct the data center would be built off-site and assembled once they arrived at the data-center location, much the way planes, cars and computers are built today. The company says the process would mean less time and money to erect a new data center.  

And Microsoft expects efficiencies in power usage that blow away even the best-rated facilities today based on power usage effectiveness (PUE), a metric developed by The Green Grid and used to determine the energy efficiency of a data center.

"A key driver is our goal to achieve an average PUE at or below 1.125 by 2012 across our data centers," Manos said on his blog.

Achieving such a low PUE average would be a breakthrough given that the typical data center has an average PUE of 2.5, according to the Uptime Institute. The Institute says that a best-case scenario today could produce a 1.6 PUE average if the data center is using the most efficient equipment and best practices.

Manos added: "More than that, we are on a mission to reduce the overall amount of copper and water used in these facilities."

Operationally, the data center would offer different classes of service defined to meet the needs of applications and services deployed and to create cost efficiencies. The classes include ala carte options such as uninterruptible power supplies and backup generators, temperature controls and redundancy.

Microsoft says the varying configurations will drive engineering innovations that will lower operational costs for applications.

And to show that Microsoft is aiming toward industry interoperability the data center's containers would have common interfaces so others can plug their wares into them including computer vendors, UPS vendors and generator vendors.

Manos admits that a 2005 memo written to Microsoft employees by now chief software architect Ray Ozzie was the trigger for thinking about how Microsoft would evolve deeper into an operations company rather than a provider of packaged software.

What grew out of that were Generation 2 facilities, now operating in Quincy, Wash., and San Antonio, Texas, which took into account sustainability, energy efficiency, and total cost of operations.

Generation 3 facilities, which are represented by Microsoft's mammoth data center in Chicago, feature containers and a modular design.

Microsoft has posted a short video to show how its Generation 4 data centers would be constructed and how they would operate.

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