Microsoft Mulling Portable Data Centers?

A key infrastructure architect for Microsoft is advocating portable data centers as "an idea whose time has come."

Rich Miller

April 5, 2007

4 Min Read
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The portable "data center in a box" concept has generated lots of publicity, but a small number of users. Sun won't begin selling its Project Blackbox container-based data centers until July. Rackable has one customer for the Concerto trailer-based data center it announced last week.

But the portable data center trend could get a huge boost from Microsoft, where an architect of the Windows Live Core team is advocating unmanned container-based commodity data centers as the future of data center infrastructure. Microsoft's James Hamilton has made two presentations recently discussing modular data centers' ability to provide economies of scale for Software as a Service (SaaS). The presentations by Hamilton, who was General Manager of the Microsoft Exchange Hosted Services team before joining the Live Core effort, are available in PowerPoint and Word.

Hamilton's presentations were first noted last week by veteran Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley (link via Greg Linden), who wrote that the proposal "highlights at a high level Microsoft's heavy datacenter investments that will provide the backbone for the Microsoft Cloud OS and various Live services."

Hamilton describes a distributed network of portable data centers as "an idea whose time has come" and wrotes that "this architecture transforms data centers from static and costly behemoths into inexpensive and portable lightweights. ... Multiple smaller data centers, regionally located, could prove to be a competitive advantage."

Is this just a provocative early-stage trial balloon being debated within the Live Core OS team? Or is Microsoft genuinely ready to stake the success of its Live initiative on a paradigm shift in data center infrastructure? It's too soon to say, as few details have emerged about the Live Core OS process and strategy. Hamilton notes that many challenges must be solved to realize the potential of portable data centers. But his presentations make for intriguing reading.

First, Hamilton offers big-picture background on the options for data center infrastructure:

"The natural tendency is towards building a small number of very large data centers and this is where some of the non-technical issues come to play. These include social and political constraints on data center location, in addition to taxation and economic factors. All diminish the appeal of the large, central data center model. ... The proposed solution is to no longer build and ship single systems or even racks of systems. Instead, we ship macro-modules consisting of a thousand or more systems. Each module is built in a 20-foot standard shipping container, configured, and burned in, and is delivered as a fully operational module with full power and networking in a ready to run no-service-required package. All that needs to be done upon delivery is provide power, networking, and chilled water."

That's not necessarily a trivial matter, as data center operators have noted in discussions about Sun's Blackbox. But incorporating liquid cooling into high-density racks can address cooling challenges, and Hamilton argues that removing support personnel from the data centers will improve reliability, noting that "human administrative error causes 20% to 50% of system outages." Modules can be equipped with enough redundancy that "as parts fail, surviving nodes continue to support the load. ... In this modified model, the constituent components are never serviced and the entire module just slowly degrades over time as more and more systems suffer non-recoverable hardware errors. Even with 50 unrecoverable hardware failures, a 1,000 system module is still operating with 95% of its original design capacity."

Using containers would make it easier to save money by relocating infrastructure to chase cheaper bandwidth and power, Hamilton notes.

A central building is still needed to house security, power, networking, and cooling equipment. But the containers can safely be stored outside. The only requirement is a secured, fenced, paved area to place the containers around the central facilities building. ... The fixed assets are just a central services building and a fenced compound rather than a $150M facility that must be sold or dismantled.

If Microsoft were to pursue a modular data center initiative, it would likely be good news for one of the hardware providers rolling out portable products. Microsoft is already a significant customer for Rackable. Hamilton's proposal discusses a 20-foot container, while Rackable's Concerto is housed in a 40-foot long trailer. But Hamilton notes that "their design scales down well so they are able to supply populated 20 foot units as well."

LiveSide, a leading news site that tracks Microsoft's Live initiatives, is taking the proposal seriously.

The idea of using commercial shipping containers to build high-scale datacenters seems rather unusual, however those working on the Ozzie team are the ideal candidates to innovatively solve these kinds of complex problems. The need for datacenters was highlighted by Ozzie in an interview early last year with Fortune, where he said that Microsoft must build a global network of server farms that will cost "staggering" amounts of money. For those who are saying that "Live is dead" this should serve as a reminder that Microsoft are investing heavily in online services and are serious about their future in this sector.

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