6 reasons why Microsoft's container-based approach to data centers won't work

Are you listening, Microsoft?

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4. Containers are a temporary, not long-term, solution.

To meet its late summer opening date for the Chicago data center, Microsoft has already opened the containers up for bid. Manos declined to comment on which vendors are in the running, but he confirmed that Microsoft hopes to award contracts to multiple vendors.

Microsoft is in the midst of its huge data center expansion in order to accommodate its growing Windows Live and Office Live online services. As a result, containers provide an "excellent opportunity to increase the scale unit, from server, to rack, to server to mini data center," Manos said.

But what happens when expansion inevitably slows? Eventually, adding servers one 2,000-server container at a time will start to feel like going to Costco to buy a 50-pound bag of dog food for your toy poodle.

"I think this is a very short-lived, ephemeral model that may work right now," said Biggs, who added that most data centers operators, such as Peak10, have no interest in containers because the scale is simply too large for them and their customers.

"The only thing interesting to me about containers is the predictability of how much power you need and how much heat you'll produce," he said. "Otherwise, they're kind of a novelty."

That's why some observers, such as Ohara, say the market is actually in smaller units. A former supply chain engineer for both Hewlett-Packard and Apple, Ohara has been developing his own prototypes for a "server cube" that would weigh about 1,000 pounds and measure 1 meter in each dimension — hence the name of his blog, GreenM3.

"It's taking what's in a server rack but putting it into a cube to make it more efficient to roll out," he said. "That potentially could apply to many more people."

Manos agreed that containers aren't the be-all and end-all for data centers, including Microsoft's. He pointed out that the second floor of the Chicago data center will still be fully comprised of conventional free-standing server racks.

"For us, it is about right-sizing the scale with the 'needs and speeds' of deployments," he said. "As it stands today, containers deliver on this goal."

"If trends continue as anticipated, containers will continue to be an important piece to the puzzle, but not the only piece," he said. But Manos also acknowledged, "The only true constant in technology is that technology will change. Whether that means the server compute form factor changes I can only guess."

5. Containers don't make a data center greener.

Microsoft has not-so-subtly tried to portray its new data centers as being exemplars of green computing. In San Antonio, the site of an upcoming 470,000-square-foot data center, construction workers built around an old live oak tree on the 44-acre site, even putting up concrete barriers to help protect it according to the local newspaper. It also plans to use recycled gray water in the data center and install the most efficient hardware, power and cooling systems.

Apart from preserving old-growth oak trees, Microsoft is doing many of the same things at its Chicago data center. Another thing about locating in the Windy City is that it is considered the most energy-efficient U.S. city in which to locate a data center.

Indeed, Microsoft said late last year that being in Chicago will enable it to use "all sorts of cold-air cooling options in the winter months," a process known as airside economization.

An airside economizer, explained Svenkeson, is a fancy term for "cutting a hole in the wall and putting in a big fan to suck in the cold air." Ninety percent more efficient than air conditioning, airside economizers sound like a miracle of Mother Nature, right?

Except that they aren't. For one, they don't work — or work well, anyway — during the winter, when air temperature is below freezing. Letting that cold, dry air simply blow in would immediately lead to a huge buildup of static electricity, which is lethal to servers, Svenkeson said.

To keep the humidity at the 30% minimum of most data centers, water would need to be added to the air as it blows in. But that requires exorbitant amounts of energy and can create a huge condensation problem if done wrong.

"You'll quickly have an ice-side economizer," Svenkeson quipped.

Airside economizers actually work better in warmer climates, or in places such as the American Southwest where temperatures drop quickly (but not below zero) at night, Svenkeson said. Or they can work in office environments, where maintaining a minimum humidity is easier because of the workers inside and also less vital.

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