TechEd: Microsoft Says Data Centers Going Lean, Green

Not so long ago, Microsoft was building massive data centers that included water-powered cooling systems and enormous generators. Not any more.  At TechEd in Atlanta, Rick Bakken, Microsoft's senior director of data center evangelism, explained at a breakout session that the next generation of Microsoft data centers will be lean and green: they will be smaller, air-cooled facilities that will use less power and cost less to operate.

Microsoft’s Chicago data center, now roughly four years old, is a large facility with two separate power supplies for redundancy and a massive water-based cooling system. The colossus is one of a group of large data centers Microsoft has built around the world in recent years. The next generation of the company's data centers will look very different, Bakken said.

“We’re not doing this again,” Bakken explained, noting that much of the cost of building the facility went into “cement, copper, and steel,” rather than into actual technology (such as servers). Microsoft won’t close its big data centers, but it will begin building what Bakken called “edge nodes”: smaller, cheaper data centers that will use less power and can even be relocated if necessary.

“We’re still going to have our large data centers,” Bakken said, adding that edge nodes “are not billion-dollar data centers. I can build these a lot faster and a lot cheaper. If you make a mistake, you can pick it up and move it.”

Microsoft’s construction of massive data centers might have slipped a bit out of control, Bakken acknowledged. “The amount of usage of the failover systems in most of our data centers [is] .001 percent of the time, and the majority of that is testing,” he said. “The fact that we have 12 diesel generators running behind that is probably overkill.”

Edge nodes, on the other hand, will reside in what Bakken called IT pre-assembled components, or ITPACs. Modular buildings much smaller than Microsoft’s current enormous data centers will house Microsoft’s servers, which the company will cool not exclusively with pumped water but with a system called adiabatic cooling. Essentially, outside air will cool the facilities, and hot or cold water will regulate the indoor temperature only when the temperature outside becomes unacceptably hot or cold.

Microsoft used the adiabatic model for its recently completed Dublin data center, Bakken said. Letting in outside air rather than exclusively using water to cool data centers can reduce operating expenses for the facilities significantly, he said.

“We built a fully redundant data center in Dublin,” Bakken said. “We run 365 days a year on outside air. [We’re] not pumping water through for cooling. If you can take advantage of outside air, you don’t have to put massive infrastructure in place. If you’re not playing around with a bunch of environments, your operating expenses go down 60 percent.”

Also during his talk, Bakken rattled off a couple of startling facts about Microsoft’s data center infrastructure: “We buy between 2 and 5 percent of the servers manufactured in the world every quarter,” he said. “If we were an ISP, we’d be the fifth-largest provider in the world.”


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Lee Pender is the executive features editor of Redmond magazine. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter.

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