Microsoft Confirms 'Data Center In a Box'

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Microsoft is actively developing container-based data centers and hopes to deploy some of them in the company’s massive new data center in the Chicago area. Debra Chrapaty, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of Global Foundation Services, said the company is examining containerized data centers that can manage power loads exceeding 1,000 watts per square foot.

Chrapaty also said Microsoft is building its own content delivery network (CDN) using technology it has licensed from Limelight Networks (LLNW). Chrapaty discussed new data center initiatives from Microsoft (MSFT) in a presentation at a Strategic Architect Forum Microsoft hosted in November.

“We’re doing a lot of work around container-based data centers,” said Chrapaty, who said the shift to high-density installations of commodity servers is one motivation to consider new architectures.

“Our density numbers today are enormous,” she said. “A couple of years ago a lot of people thought it was a lot of power if they were using 140 watts per square foot. I think a good healthy number is now around 300 to 400 watts a square foot, which has huge implications for how you rack and stack your environment.”

Container-based data centers could support much denser server environments, she said. “I’m looking now at containers that can offer 1,000 to 1,400 watts per square foot. That changes the TCO (total cost of ownership) model a lot, especially if you believe power is the limiting factor here, which I do.”


We first noted Microsoft’s interest in container-based data centers back in April 2007, when Windows Live architect James Hamilton made several presentations advocating unmanned container-based commodity data centers as the future of data center infrastructure. Shortly afterward a Microsoft spokeswoman told MarketWatch that Hamilton’s paper “was academic and not reflective of any Microsoft plan or strategy.”

In fact, Microsoft was mobilizing some of its best thinkers to examine approaches to container-based data centers. That includes Chuck Thacker, a computing pioneer who won the IEEE’s 2007 John von Neumann medal. Thacker, who is now a distinguished researcher at Microsoft, is the co-inventor of Ethernet and principal designer of the Xerox Alto personal computer.

In October Thacker gave a presentation at the Stanford Networking Seminar titled “Rethinking Data Centers” (available in PowerPoint) that examined various approaches to “data center in a box” approach to portable data centers. Thacker’s slides describe an approach using 40-foot containerized data centers packed with 32 energy-efficient racks, each filled with 40 1U servers. Using 64 of those containers would result in a data center facility filled with 82,000 servers and using 16 megawatts of power.

And power, Chrapaty says, is the key metric. “Power is a really big deal,” she said. “We measure everything according to power, because it’s really the way we are looking at infrastructure.”

In November Microsoft announced plans to spend $500 million to build a 550,000 square foot data center in Northlake, Illinois near Chicago. The facility will be supplied with 120 megawatts of power and have its own substation. “We’re doing some innovations there,” Chrapaty said. “We’re looking at some container solutions in Chicago.”

Container-based data center products have been a hot topic since Sun Microsystems (JAVA) announced Project Blackbox in late 2006. Last year Rackable Systems (RACK) unveiled its own containerized data center, known as ICE Cube. Microsoft is one of the largest customers for Rackable, which says it has shipped three ICE Cubes to unnamed customers. Rackable has said it doesn’t believe its products are affected by a patent awarded to Google for a data center in a shipping container.

Chrapaty said the basic design of data centers hasn’t changed much for the last 15 years, and as a result design is now playing catch-up to dramatic changes that include grid hosting, virtualization and extreme power and cooling challenges. “From my perspective, the industry is changing at a really rapid pace,” she said. “It’s a rate of change I personally haven’t seen in any other part of the business.

“Part of the challenge I put out to my team is to help me build something different. We have some newer ideas we can put in play. Our mission is to reinvent infrastructure for the industry.”

About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.