Microsoft's 198 Megawatts of Motivation

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The new paradigm in the data center will be seen outside Microsoft’s new Chicago data center, in the form of three 66 megawatt substations, providing the facility with a total capacity of 198 megawatts of power.

This extraordinary volume of electric power – and the massive investment it represents – is driving a transformation inside the data center, as managers seek to wring maximum productivity from every watt of power.

“The economics of our world are changing,” said Mike Manos, Microsoft’s director of data center services. “We’re becoming significant cost centers within our businesses. Your power bill is becoming more significant.”

Microsoft (MSFT) will invest $500 million in the new data center in the Chicago suburb of Northlake, Ill. In his keynote Tuesday at Data Center World, Manos noted that 82 percent of data center construction costs are related to mechanical and electrical infrastructure. Microsoft has taken steps to ensure that the efficient use of power is a priority for its workforce.

“Data center managers at Microsoft are measured by efficiency, not uptime,” said Manos, who said incentives and bonuses are tied to efficient use of power. “If I’m going to go spend $500 million on a data center and 82 percent of the cost is wrapped up in my power bill, I want to make sure I get every dollar of my 82 percent. The concrete and land are not significant compared to the cost of power.

“We normalize everything against power,” said Manos. “We put an amazing amount of effort into monitoring and measuring our use. It is a cardinal sin at Microsoft to not use all of your power.”


The 198 megawatt power capacity at the Northlake facility is nearly twice that of Chicago’s largest carrier hotel, the 300 East Cermak building owned by Digital Realty Trust (DLR). It equates to nearly 400 watts per square foot across the planned 500,000 square foot footprint of the Northlake center. That density will be enabled by Microsoft’s use of shipping containers filled with servers, which will fill the first floor of the data center. The containers will be able to support power densities of more than 1,000 watts per square foot.

“Oh, for the days of 4 kilowatt racks,” Manos joked. “We now average eight to 12 kilowatts per rack, and we have some implementations drawing 36 kilowatts per rack. And power costs are only going one way.”

The surge in the volume and cost of power has driven an intense focus on tracking and optimizing the use of electricity within Microsoft’s data centers. “We’re really trying to push the boundaries of where data center technology is headed,” said Manos, a trend that has accelerated in the two years since Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie outlined the company’s shift towards a cloud-based software-plus-services strategy.

“Data centers, almost overnight, became incredibly important to Microsoft,” said Manos. “Over the past couple of years, we have experienced 100 percent year-over-year growth. That’s a trend that will continue for the next five years.”

Microsoft is currently adding 10,000 to 20,000 servers per month to its computing infrastructure. Five years from now, Manos expects Microsoft to have 15 times as many servers as it does now. That’s a prospect that’s likely to make server vendors giddy with delight. Getting the most bang for its server investment will no doubt remain a priority for Microsoft. But Manos said the company’s power use may increase at a similar 15X rate – which is why he is focused on the value of electrons as well as hardware.

“It puts an interesting pinch on the data center,” he said. “The cost of the 1U server in your facility is almost incidental to the power that server will use over its lifetime.”

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.

One Comment

  1. David I

    The 3 - 66MW substations = 198 MW Installed capacity. But in reality the way utilities work is that you will be able only to use between 33% to 50% of that , as MSN also requests redundancy on their systems. In essence the maximum MSN will use is between 33 MW and 55 MW