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

Are you listening, Microsoft?

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A less risky solution is using an air conditioning system that can be transformed during the winter into a so-called closed-loop liquid cooling system. This process essentially involved exposing coolant-bearing pipes to the hot air inside the data center. The coolant absorbs the heat and expands, rushing through the pipes to the outside of the building. There, it cools, shrinks and flows back inside, where it repeats the process.

While closed-loop systems are "wickedly efficient," according to Biggs, they still take a lot of energy to work. "There's no free lunch. The laws of physics haven't been repealed."

Even with cutting-edge cooling systems, it still takes a watt of electricity to a cool a server for every watt spent to power it, estimated Svenkeson.

"It's quite astonishing the amount of energy you need," Svenkeson said.

Or as Emcor's Baker put it, "With every 19-inch rack, you're running something like 40,000 watts. How hot is that? Go and turn your oven on."

Manos acknowledged that Microsoft's initial plan to use only air-side economizers, especially during the winter, was overly optimistic. As a result, the Chicago data center will use both air and liquid cooling. "We're optimizing for both extremes," he said.

Manos wouldn't go into details, except to say "an entire organization of research and engineering people" is working on cooling and power issues. "I'm not sure if we're doing anything more revolutionary in this space, but a lot of the problems have been solved."

And he emphasized that with the cost of power making up the vast majority of the ongoing cost of its data center operations, Microsoft has every incentive to make sure they are as energy-efficient as possible.

But with Microsoft building three electrical substations on-site sucking down a total of 198 megawatts, or enough to power almost 200,000 homes, green becomes a relative term, others say.

"People talk about making data centers green. There's nothing green about them. They drink electricity and belch heat," Biggs said. "Doing this in pods is not going to turn this into a miracle."

6. Containers are a programmer's approach to a mechanical engineer's problem.

Some say that there are good reasons why geeks have given Microsoft a free pass so far on its containers plan. First, they seem to offer a long-overdue paradigm shift in power and cooling problems that, by comparison, seem to routinely occur in software and other areas of IT, but that haven't yet really happened for power and cooling.

"I think IT guys look at how much faster we can move data and think this can also happen in the real world of electromechanics," Baker said.

Another is that techies, unfamiliar with and perhaps even a little afraid of electricity and cooling issues, want something that will make those factors easier to control, or if possible a nonproblem. Containers seem to offer that.

"These guys understand computing, of course, as well as communications," Svenkeson said. "But they just don't seem to be able to maintain a staff that is competent in electrical and mechanical infrastructure. They don't know how that stuff works."

Svenkeson tells the story of the data center manager whose UPS systems kept overloading, even though he had each of them set at only 80% load. Turns out, the pair of UPSs was running 160% of the maximum load through his servers, which is why they kept failing.

Attempting to eliminate these variables through plug-and-play containers "is a fairly natural response," Svenkeson said, though he believes it's the wrong one. He argues that containers will ultimately be seen as a "fast-food approach."

"It might be a viable market, but only for a limited time," he said. "As soon as the first containers arrive with a bunch of broken processors inside, that will be the end of it."

Manos is unfazed. Much of the criticism, he implied, is knee-jerk.

"Data centers are very conservative," he said. "You go into one built a year ago or one built 10 years ago and they'll look very similar."

Microsoft had been testing containers for almost a year before it started talking about them publicly, Manos said. What Microsoft has revealed so far is just the tip of the iceberg. When critics learn more, he says, they'll be convinced.

"Half of the people say this is the greatest thing they'd ever heard. The other half say this will never work inside a data center," Manos said. "But the fact of the matter is that this does work."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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