The Azure Cloud, Exposed to the Azure Sky


Data center modules packed with servers sit outside at the newest phase of the Microsoft data center in Quincy, Washington. In the background is the vast concrete shell of the company’s initial Quincy data center. (Photo: Microsoft)

QUINCY, Washington – As the Windows Azure cloud expands across central Washington, the physical building has all but disappeared. Lightweight enclosures filled with servers, known as ITPACs, sit under the barest of skeleton of a facility. They are self-contained data centers, assembled in days, housed on a concrete slabs and attached to a power “spine” supplying connections to the grid and the Internet. It’s completely open to the air, and in production.

With the latest phase of its data center in Quincy, Microsoft is getting out of the air conditioning business and deploying thousands of servers inside factory-built modules, which can be installed in days and allow the company to reach new heights of energy efficiency. The ITPACs take advantage of the natural environment in Quincy, allowing cool air to flow through the modules and cool the servers powering the Azure cloud.

One Campus, Three Experiences

Walking through the Quincy campus provides three very different experiences. After passing through security, you encounter Microsoft’s first facility on the six-year old campus, a typical data center in an immense concrete shell. The next phase is a lightweight building housing ITPACs. The end of the trip takes you to open air – yet even here, the Microsoft cloud continues to grow.

After passing through a gate that could stop a truck, you arrive at the 470,000 foot concrete building, constructed by Microsoft in 2007. The Columbia campus feels like a fortress, with a gauntlet of security that includes a staffed access gate, biometrics and a mantrap corridor (which earns its name from the doors at both ends, which cannot open at the same time, limiting access to ) . After you’re cleared, as a guest you receive a badge that expires after a set time, with the word “VOID” appearing out of nowhere. This is your traditional enterprise data center with all the trimmings, and then some. It features all the physical redundancy, the giant generators, and the massive UPS rooms you would expect to be hidden beyond such security.

Once you walk outside, you begin to see the evolution of Microsoft’s data center design. The next building you enter isn’t really a building at all, but a steel and aluminum framework. Inside the shell are pre-manufactured ITPAC modules. Microsoft has sought to standardize the design for its ITPAC – short for Information Technology Pre-Assembled Component – but also allows vendors to work with the specifications and play with the design. These ITPACs use air side economization, and there are a few variations.

Essentially, they are data centers in a box. Cooling is supplied by fresh air and the equivalent of a garden hose. Fresh air is drawn into the enclosure through louvers lining the side of the module, which functions as a huge air handler with racks of servers inside. Each IT module is also equipped with an evaporative cooling system in which air passes through a moist media filter. The system uses just 1 percent of what the traditional data center uses.

Inside A ‘Secret Garden’ of Servers

These ITPACs are highly efficient, and quick to deploy. The shell around these first ITPACs is wall-screened.

However, by the end of the trip, you’re back in open air, in a “Secret Garden” of servers. The building has disappeared, but each ITPAC unit acts as its own steel perimeter. You’re still on camera, you’re still in a highly secure area, but it feels wide open.

Just as the security evolves, so does the power infrastructure.  Cloud servers drive a whole different design, down to the components.

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About the Author

Jason Verge is an Editor/Industry Analyst on the Data Center Knowledge team with a strong background in the data center and Web hosting industries. In the past he’s covered all things Internet Infrastructure, including cloud (IaaS, PaaS and SaaS), mass market hosting, managed hosting, enterprise IT spending trends and M&A. He writes about a range of topics at DCK, with an emphasis on cloud hosting.

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  1. Extremely Curious

    Are those really Azure servers in the ITPACs or are they Bing servers?