Microsoft’s $1 Billion Data Center


Some of the data center modules at Microsoft’s campus in Boydton, Virginia are housed outdoors, with no roof. These modules, known as IT-PACs, house thousands of servers to support Microsoft’s fast-growing cloud computing operation. (Photo: Microsoft)

With its latest expansion, Microsoft’s investment in its data center campus in southern Virginia has reached $997 million – and that’s minus the cost of a roof.

The Microsoft campus in Boydton, Va. will expand to include two more data center facilities, the company said yesterday. Microsoft also provided a first public glimpse of its new  data center design, which features pre-fabricated modules housing thousands of servers, some of which sit on a slab, open to the sky and the outdoors.

The Virginia facility marks the latest evolution of Microsoft’s modular approach, which has transformed the company’s Internet infrastructure and its supply chain, allowing for faster and cheaper deployment of cloud capacity. Microsoft has also pushed the boundaries of data center design, abandoning chillers and data halls – and in some cases, even roofs.

Microsoft now builds much of its data center equipment in factories, and ships the components to its data center campuses, where they are assembled on-site. This focus on PACs (Pre-Assembled Components) allows Microsoft to standardize many elements of its IT and power infrastructure.

A Module for All Seasons

The key driver in this model are IT-PACs, container-like modular data centers that are designed to operate in all environments, and employ a free cooling approach in which fresh air is drawn into the enclosure through louvers in the side of the container – which effectively functions as a huge air handler with racks of servers inside.

In Virginia, these IT-PACs can operate outdoors, realizing a vision put forth by Christian Belady, general manager of Microsoft Data Center Services. Back in 2008, Belady and his Microsoft colleague Sean James put a rack of servers in a pup tent for eight months, with 100 percent uptime. That experiment helped the data center industry rethink assumptions about the impact of temperature and humidity on server health.

When Microsoft first developed the IT-PAC modular deployment model, it considered building data centers with no roofs, but ultimately opted for a lightweight building to house the modules. But Belady remained intrigued by the roof-less data center, as noted in an interview with Data Center Knowledge in 2011, while the Virginia campus was under construction.

Dramatically Lower Water Use

That vision has been realized in the latest phases at the Boydton campus, which also houses more traditional data center space. Microsoft has built out the first two phases of the campus, which it describes as “316,300 square feet and growing.” Parts of the campus feature modules housed under pre-manufactured metal buildings, similar to a design the company used in Quincy, Washington.  In other parts, the IT-PAC modules are housed outside.

The climate in Virginia is warmer than previous sites where Microsoft has deployed modules – including Chicago, Dublin and Quincy. The IT-PACs use an adiabatic cooling system in which warm outside air enters the enclosure and passes through a layer of media, which is dampened by a small flow of water. The air is cooled as it passes through the wet media. Microsoft says this approach allows it to keep servers cool while using just 1 percent of the water consumed in a traditional data center.

When the temperature is cooler, waste heat from servers can be mixed with outside air to adjust the temperature as needed.

The Boydton facility, which opened in February 2012, operates with a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) rating between 1.13 to 1.2 at peak usage.

Yesterday Microsoft said it will invest an additional $348 million to built two more phases to the Virginia facility, bringing its total investment to $997 million. Thus far Apple has been the only company to announce a $1 billion pricetag for a single data center campus. But as companies build out larger campuses for their cloud computing infrastructure, it is changing the math for Internet infrastructure investment.

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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.

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  1. Hi Rich I am doing some market research on the Data Centre sector in the USA& Europe . Where can I find informatioon regarding current : - Market size -Key players -Growth predictions -Drivers of growth Your help would be appreciated Regards Sean Mac Entee Hanley Energy Ltd Drogheda Ireland

  2. Todd Loescher

    After reading the article, I am not sure I understand the significance of the roofless data center. Is the roof actually the media where water is introduced into the outside air?

  3. Todd, when they refer to "roofless" I suspect they are simply referring to the lack of a traditional building around the ITPACs. We have seen "modular" data pods installed inside old warehouses or other structures with a "roof". At the end of the day installing pods inside a building really doesn't make much sense (except, perhaps, for security reasons) becasue the pods themselves are designed to be waterproof. The ITPACS have their own roof as part of the module design so a second roof is redundant. The adiabatic coolers in the pictures appear to be on the sides of the pods and the air is drawn through the coolers by the server fans.

  4. JayWalker

    These and the container units being touted by Bladeroom and IO are the trailer parks of the data center business. Fine for cloud computing or the likes of the used booksellers like AMZN. Not mission critical facilities, I would never consider this option for my company's critical requirements.. Very inefficient if not running at full capacity..,

  5. john doe

    These MSFT modular data centers are loaded up right from the get go. They are very efficient and quick to deploy. A typical container of this size might hold 1,500 servers... that is density quick and where you need it.

  6. Merrick

    @JayWalker Pretty sure you don't know what you are talking about. I have seen both I/O and bladeroom's systems and your description sounds like you havn't. IO is a container type design that is supposed to go in a building, the bladeroom data centers on the other hand are themselves buildings. I walked through a big 2 story bladeroom and you would have a hard time figuring out how these things are made in the factory since it feels and looks like a full brick and mortar data center when you walk around it. The one i walked around was a collocation facility with multiple tenants... so I think the cloud computing only broad-brush statement is a little weak...