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Microsoft trying to blow the roof off data-center design

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

By , Network World
December 04, 2008 04:50 PM ET

Network World - 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.  

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