Microsoft uses AI to boost its reuse, recycling of server parts

Get ready to hear the term 'circular' a lot more in reference to data center gear.

servers / server racks [close-up perspective shot]
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Microsoft is bringing artificial intelligence to the task of sorting through millions of servers to determine what can be recycled and where.

The new initiative calls for the building of so-called Circular Centers at Microsoft data centers around the world, where AI algorithms will be used to sort through parts from decommissioned servers or other hardware and figure out which parts can be reused on the campus.

Microsoft says it has more than three million servers and related hardware in its data centers, and that a server's average lifespan is about five years. Plus, Microsoft is expanding globally, so its server numbers should increase.

Circular Centers are all about quickly sorting through the inventory rather than tying up overworked staff. Microsoft plans to increase its reuse of server parts by 90% by 2025. "Using machine learning, we will process servers and hardware that are being decommissioned onsite," wrote Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, in a blog post announcing the initiative. "We'll sort the pieces that can be reused and repurposed by us, our customers, or sold."

Smith notes that today there is no consistent data about the quantity, quality and type of waste, where it is generated, and where it goes. Data about construction and demolition waste, for example, is inconsistent and needs a standardized methodology, better transparency and higher quality.

"Without more accurate data, it's nearly impossible to understand the impact of operational decisions, what goals to set, and how to assess progress, as well as an industry standard for waste footprint methodology," he wrote.

A Circular Center pilot in an Amsterdam data center reduced downtime and increased the availability of server and network parts for its own reuse and buy-back by suppliers, according to Microsoft. It also reduced the cost of transporting and shipping servers and hardware to processing facilities, which lowered carbon emissions.

The term "circular economy" is catching on in tech. It's based on recycling of server hardware, putting equipment that is a few years old but still quite usable back in service somewhere else. ITRenew, a reseller of used hyperscaler servers that I profiled a few months back, is big on the term.

The first Microsoft Circular Centers will be built at new, major data-center campuses or regions, the company says. It plans to eventually add these centers to campuses that already exist.

Microsoft has an expressed goal of being "carbon negative" by 2030, and this is just one of several projects. Recently Microsoft announced it had conducted a test at its system developer's lab in Salt Lake City where a 250kW hydrogen fuel cell system powered a row of server racks for 48 hours straight, something the company says has never been done before.

"It is the largest computer backup power system that we know that is running on hydrogen and it has run the longest continuous test," Mark Monroe, a principal infrastructure engineer, wrote in a Microsoft blog post. He says hydrogen fuel cells have plummeted so much in recent years that they are now a viable alternative to diesel-powered backup generators but much cleaner burning.

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