Think big, green: Microsoft's mall-size data centers

Company commissioning two facilities in greater Chicago and San Antonio areas

Microsoft Corp. is developing 1 million square feet of data center space in the U.S. in separate projects in San Antonio and near Chicago as it adds to its technological capacity to provide online services.

These are huge facilities. If shopping in a large mall is tiring, imagine working in Microsoft's new Northlake, Ill., data center, announced this week. It will be 550,000 square feet -- about 12 acres, or more than 10 football fields -- in area, enough room to comfortably house four or five "big-box" retailers.

The company began building a 447,000-square-foot data center in San Antonio in July and expects to have it operating by next summer. The Chicago center will begin operations sometime early next spring.

But a retail store, or for that matter a fast-food restaurant, may have more people working at it than Microsoft's massive data center in Northlake will have. Just 30 people -- and that includes IT administrators, security and janitorial staffers -- will tend "tens of thousands" of servers, which is as specific as Mike Manos, senior director of data center services at Microsoft, would get about the facility's expected computing power.

Microsoft will rely heavily on automation to run its data center, said Manos.

"When you get to a certain level of size and scale, if you are not driving toward a significant level of automation, you are doing it all wrong, I think," he said.

Meanwhile, outside the walls ...

While the staff at the facility will be small, Brad Day, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., said he believes the data center will be keeping many more people outside the center busy, especially IT vendors supplying equipment and services. By choosing the Chicago area, Microsoft's executives "are trying to bring their services professionals much closer to the line of business," said Day.

Mark Levin, a consultant at benchmarking firm Metrics Based Assessments LLC, said he suspects that Microsoft is only counting direct operations people at the site, not the systems administrators, storage managers and database administrators, many of whom can work remotely.

Microsoft needs data center space, in part, for some new services, including storage space for customers to house high-definition video, music and documents under its planned Microsoft Live Drive program.

Working with what you've got

Google is building large data centers in areas where electricity is inexpensive, such as next to the hydropower-rich Columbia River in the Dalles, Ore., or in rural areas. But Chicago is not without its intrinsic advantages, said Manos, a Windy City native.

Microsoft will in fact be taking advantage of a natural Chicagoland feature to help cut energy costs at that facility. It's called air-side economization -- otherwise known as opening a window. From fall to spring in Chicago, "the air outside isn't necessarily warm," said Manos, and cooler air will be used to help chill the data center. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., in particular, has been advocating the technology and has said that doing so can cut cooling costs by 60%.

Microsoft is leasing the data center facility, which was was originally developed by Ascent Corp. and The Koman Group LLC. The original plan was to provide data center space for about eight companies until Microsoft asked for the entire facility, said Phil Horstmann, CEO of St. Louis-based Ascent, a data center development firm.

The Northlake facility is near a utility transmission line and has access to six fiber-optic networks. When Microsoft is done with its work, it may be one of the largest data centers in the U.S. "I don't know of any others this size, of true data centers," said Horstmann.

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