Visitor center at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington. July, 2014 (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Visitor center at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington. July, 2014 (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Starbucks Sustainability Czar to Lead Microsoft’s Green Data Center Strategy

It’s no secret that Microsoft already has a lot of cloud data centers around the world. And the company is planning to build a whole lot more as it attempts to bite further into Amazon’s stranglehold on the cloud services market.

As it continues to build out its global cloud data center empire, Microsoft has to make sure it’s doing it in the most environmentally responsible way it can. It is one of tech’s biggest names and as such, it is under a lot of scrutiny by environmentalists and the public.

To help the cause, Microsoft has created a new role, dedicated specifically to data center sustainability. Not corporate sustainability, not energy strategy, not data center strategy, but data center sustainability. This week, the company announced it has hired Jim Hanna, who until recently led environmental affairs at Starbucks, to fill that role.

“Microsoft is committed to building the most hyperscale public cloud that operates around the world in more regions than anyone else,” Rob Bernard, Microsoft’s chief environmental strategist, wrote in a blog post announcing the appointment. “This focus on growing the cloud means that we are making big investments in our data centers, where we are increasingly focused on sustainability.”

The company’s cloud is currently served out of more than 20 regions around the world. Each cloud region usually consists of more than one data center. Microsoft says it has already invested $15 billion in this global data center network, and it’s not stopping there.

Like other hyperscale cloud giants, Microsoft’s data center sustainability strategy consists of a combination of efficiency improvements and investment in renewable energy.

The company spends a lot of resources on research focused on building a more efficient infrastructure. Some of the innovations to come out of those efforts include its ITPAC data center modules, which maximize the use of outside air for cooling, and more experimental ideas, such as installing small gas-fueled fuel cells directly into data center racks, or converting methane from a waste processing facility into energy to power servers.

Microsoft has been investing in renewable energy development with the goal of cleaning up its data center power supply since about three years ago.

A lot of the money that pays for Microsoft’s renewable energy purchases and energy efficiency research comes from its unusual practice of charging its internal divisions for carbon emissions they are responsible for. The company instituted its internal carbon fee in 2012 and so far has found it very effective.

Any major web-scale cloud data center operator’s sustainability efforts are complicated by one factor: they cannot build their own data centers fast enough to keep up with growth, so they end up leasing a lot of capacity from commercial data center providers, many of whom have their own view of sustainability and renewable energy.

Last year, for example, Microsoft leased more than 27MW of data center capacity total from three different wholesale data center providers: DuPont Fabros Technology in Northern Virginia, Vantage Data Centers in Silicon Valley, and Digital Realty Trust in the Chicago area, according to research by the commercial real estate firm North American Data Centers.

Read more: Who Leased the Most Data Center Space in 2015

More data center providers now go to greater lengths than usual to provide renewable energy options to their customers, but not all of them do – by far – which means major cloud providers don’t really have full control of the way their cloud infrastructure is powered. There are other constraints, such as lack of direct access to renewable energy in many places around the world, including in many American states.

Read more: Cleaning Up Data Center Power is Dirty Work

What all this means is that Jim Hanna’s new job may be exciting or any number of other adjectives, except one: simple.

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About the Author

San Francisco-based business and technology journalist. Editor in chief at Data Center Knowledge, covering the global data center industry.

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