Microsoft sees little data centers everywhere

Portable data centers will be key to supporting the surging demand for online services, but equipment vendors need to start designing products especially for them, a Microsoft engineer said Wednesday.

Microsoft has already shown its enthusiasm for portable data centers, which cram hundreds of servers into a standard 20-foot (6.1 meter) shipping container that can be delivered wherever it's needed, so long as there is a power supply and network connection.

The company has said it will put more than 200 of them on the first floor of a data center it's building in Chicago, and it is already operating at least one of its online services, Virtual Earth, from a portable data center in Colorado.

"The idea of modular, portable data centers is key to the industry’s future," said Daniel Costello, Microsoft director of data center research, in a presentation at GigaOM's Structure 08 conference in San Francisco. "That’s why I’m here to talk about data centers, not just for Microsoft but for our customers as well."

Buying these boxes from server vendors can be more energy-efficient and cost-effective than building a new, traditional data center, he said, and Microsoft sees them as more than just a way to add extra computing capacity at short notice. "We see them as a primary packaging unit," he said.

Using shipping containers is part of an effort by Microsoft to radically rethink its data centers, as it tries to add more computing capacity in a way that is cost effective and power efficient. "At Microsoft, we're questioning every component in the data center, up to and including the roof," Costello said. That includes "eliminating concrete from our data center bills."

"The definition of a datacenter has changed. It's not just bricks and mortar any more, and moving forward, we think it can be a lot more energy efficient," he said.

But vendors building portable data centers today are filling them with equipment that was designed for traditional data centers. "Moving forward, we need to design systems specifically for this form factor. If we look at the containers, that form factor will change over time as well."

Microsoft has approached every major server vendor about providing it with equipment, Costello said. He said he thinks "all major vendors" will offer portable data centers within the next two years. Vendors offering them today include Sun, Verari Systems, Rackable Systems and American Power Conversion.

The cost benefits come partly from economies of scale. Shipping 2,000 servers in a container is more cost-effective than shipping and installing separate racks, and portable data centers don't require raised floors or as much wiring.

They can offer a better "power unit efficiency" ratio than do traditional data centers, he said. PUE is a measure of a data center's power efficiency. If a server demands 500 watts and the PUE of a data center is 3.0, the power from the grid needed to run the server will be 1500 watts, according to a definition from The Green Grid industry consortium.

"We've seen PUE at a peak of 1.3" in modular data centers, Costello said, compared with between 1.6 and 2.0 for a traditional data center.

The containers can accommodate 1,000 watts per square foot, allowing companies to power a lot more servers in a given area, he said. Many companies are unable to add more equipment to their data centers because power supplies and cooling equipment are at maximum capacity. The portable data centers are an alternative to building new facilities or extending old ones.

There are some drawbacks and plenty of questions to be answered, he said. Some of the cons include a higher cost of failure if the power to a container is cut off, as well as new risks in terms of regulatory compliance. In addition, portable data centers offered today can't accommodate servers from multiple vendors, he said.

There may also be issues with patents. The idea of putting standard equipment into a standard shipping container probably can't be patented, according to Costello, but "what happens inside the unit, in terms of airflow and how it's laid out, is definitely patentable."

There are also questions about the lifecycle of a portable data center, such as whether it can be refurbished after its 10-year life-span or will need to be discarded. "The financial models are still being worked out," Costello said.

But he thinks portable data centers will be deployed widely to provide services to end users. "We used to talk about a PC on every desk," he said. "But how about a data center in every town?"

The company is looking at green energy sources to power them, including wind, solar and hydroelectric, he said.

The Structure conference is about the infrastructure equipment needed for cloud computing, which refers to hosted services such as Amazon's S3 storage service and Google's App Engine, but can also include online services such as MySpace and Salesforce.com.

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