Microsoft Embraces Data Center Containers

Microsoft's new data center in Chicago will forego a traditional raised-floor environment, and instead fill one floor of the huge facility with up to 220 shipping containers packed with servers.

Rich Miller

April 1, 2008

2 Min Read
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The data center container revolution has officially arrived. And Microsoft's cloud computing initiative is driving it.

Microsoft will forego a traditional raised-floor environment in its new data center in Chicago, and will instead fill one floor of the huge facility with up to 220 shipping containers packed with servers, the company said today.

Microsoft is embracing containers as the key to building scalable, energy-efficient cloud computing platforms. The company's bold move is an affirmation of the potential for containers to address the most pressing power, cooling and capacity utilization challenges facing data center operators. The Chicago facility is part of the company's fleet of next-generation data centers being built to support its Live suite of "software plus services" online applications.

But the design of the Chicago data center will go beyond the optimizations seen in Microsoft's new facilities in Quincy, Washington and San Antonio.

"The entire first floor of Chicago is going to be containers," Microsoft director of data center services Michael Manos said this morning in his keynote at Data Center World in Las Vegas. "This represents our first container data center. The containers are going to be dropped off and plugged into network cabling and power." The second floor of the immense facility will be a traditional raised-floor data center, Manos said.

"It's a bold step forward," said Manos. "We're trying to address scale with the cloud level services. We were trying to figure the best way to bring capacity online quickly."

Data Center Knowledge first reported Microsoft's interest in container-based data centers last May, and late in 2007 Microsoft confirmed that it would use container-based data center solutions in the new $500 million, 500,000 square foot facility in Northlake, Illinois. Microsoft's Debra Chrapaty said the containers could support power densities beyond 1,000 watts per square foot.

The layout of the first floor of the Chicago center will feature rows and rows of containers parked at a 45 degree angle. Manos said the facility will accommodate between 150 and 220 shipping containers, which will be shipped and dropped off by trucks. That approach led Microsoft to consult with parking lot operators to address the design logistics of enabling large trucks to navigate within the facility.

Shipping containers have been used for years by the U.S. military. In 2006 Sun Microsystems (JAVA) introduce Project Blackbox (now the Sun MD S20), the first effort at a "data center in a box" incorporating a high-density computing environment into a 20-foot shipping container. The containers can travel on trains, ships or trucks.

Similar products have since been introduced by Rackable Systems (RACK) and Verari Systems. Manos said the specifications for Microsoft's containers are designed by Microsoft, but the company will be working with vendors on the actual units. Microsoft is a Rackable customer, but Manos wouldn't say which vendors might be building all those containers.

And just in case anyone was wondering ... no, this is not an April Fool's gag. We've had quite enough of those this morning already.

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