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Microsoft Tests Container Approach In Chicago Data Center

Microsoft's new data center in Chicago runs servers packed in shipping containers to let it quickly add or remove capacity as it tries to compete with Google in online services.

To get a picture of Microsoft’s ambition for providing software such as Exchange and Office over the Internet, consider the number of empty “parking spaces” in its new data center in Chicago, which it showed off to IT executives and the press Wednesday.

Microsoft's Chicago data center
(Click image for two larger pictures.)
Server containers on an aisle of Microsoft's Chicago data center.

Microsoft’s suburban Chicago data center is a $550 million bet on a relatively new idea of running servers inside a standard shipping container. The container arrives from the server manufacturer packed with about 2,000 ready-to-run machines, the container goes direct from the delivery truck to the data center floor, and the servers can be online within eight hours of delivery.

The containers can be stacked two high, and the facility has 56 parking spaces for containers. Today, only about a dozen of those parking spaces are full. And Microsoft already is building a second data center on the same site, which will provide another 56 parking spaces.

“The online world is unpredictable. With new feature sets coming out continually, new products we haven’t even thought of, we have to make these investments scale beyond what we know of today,” says Kevin Timmons, general manager of Microsoft data center operations. “… A big part of our job is to provide the business with options.”

Microsoft has been on a data center building binge the past several years to catch up with rivals who offer their software as an online service, from Google’s search and Gmail to Saleforce.com’s customer management software. Microsoft’s cloud computing vision is “software plus services,” where companies and consumers use a mix of software on their PCs or in their data centers as well as online services. In addition to the Chicago data center, which opened in July, Microsoft this week also showed off its new data center in Dublin, aimed at providing services to Europe and the Middle East. It also has data centers in Quincy, WA, and San Antonio.

In the Chicago data center, roughly a third of the capacity is delivered in a conventional data center format—rows and rows of server racks, sitting on a raised floor that allows for cooling to run underneath, with masses of fiber optic cable and electrical conduit overhead.

But the most unique feature—and the one that points to its future data center strategy—is the containers, which sit on a smooth concrete floor. Microsoft isn’t the first to use the container concept, but this data center is one of the biggest implementations of it to date.

Microsoft’s embracing the containers for operating efficiency, but also for the speed-to-market they offer when ramping up capacity to add new services or keep up with growth. The building has cooling, power, and network connections ready to link to the containers, and Microsoft can get a container of servers delivered from the manufacturer in roughly six to eight weeks. Adding capacity, Microsoft says, isn’t focused on the technical issue. “It is much more of an industrial-strength supply chain problem, and that’s the way it has to become,” Timmons says. When Microsoft first put out this proposal, only two server vendors could meet the requirements for ready-to-run servers in containers. Now, six offer it.

Microsoft isn’t done pushing this modular approach, says Daniel Costello, director of the company’s data center research and engineering. Its researchers are working on ways to deliver air conditioning and heating as modular units as well, since they’re a huge part of a data center’s fixed equipment costs.

And there’s a wide open space in the middle of the Chicago data center, where there are no yellow parking space lines painted. The next generation of modular units won’t be shipping containers, Costello says—though he’s not yet ready to say what form they will be.

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