Data Center Condos: New from Microsoft

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Microsoft’s interest in data center containers first emerged last May in presentations by infrastructure architect James Hamilton. In less than a year, those concepts were announced as a lynchpin of a new Microsoft facility costing half a billion dollars.

Hamilton is still thinking about using modular approaches to make data centers better and cheaper. In a blog post today Hamilton and colleague Ken Church outline a provocative new approach: data center condos:

Rather than design and develop massive data centers with 15 year lives, let’s incrementally purchase condominiums (just-in-time) and place a small number of systems in each. Radical to be sure but condo’s are a commodity and, if this mechanism really was cheaper, it would be a wake-up call to all of us to start looking much more closely at current industry-wide costs and what’s driving them. That’s our point here.

There’s some interesting math in the accompanying table in which Hamilton and Church estimate the costs of deploying 54,000 servers in a purpose-built data centers versus buying 1,125 condos to house servers.


The comparison assumes a price of $100,000 apiece for condominiums, which would each house 48 servers, essentially serving as a rack equivalent. At $112.5 million, the cost of the condos represents a huge savings over the $200 million estimate for a traditional data center. It also assumed that the annual power bill would be higher for the condos, which would pay the residential rate rather than the discounted bulk power data centers can negotiate with utilities.

The condos also save on mechanical and electrical infrastructure, as they get two-phase 120V AC power. Since the servers are tied into a huge cloud fabric, redundancy is handled at the software level as applications route around failed servers or modules – eliminating the need for power redundancy.

Just for kicks, Hamilton and Church toss in revenue from renting the condos. I’m not sure what tenants they have in mind that would want to share their condo with 48 servers (Microsoft data center staff, perhaps?). The obvious next step is to use the heat from the servers to warm the condo – or at least heat the swimming pool at the condo development.

“The condo solution might be pushing the limit a bit but whenever we see a crazy idea even within a factor of two of what we are doing today, something is wrong,” Hamilton writes. “Let’s go pick some low hanging fruit.”

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.