Model T inspires Microsoft plan for modular IT

The company sees factory assembly lines as the model for data center construction.

Microsoft Corp. plans a broad, five-year rollout of its container-based modular data center infrastructure, which executives last week called the foundation of the company's cloud computing effort.

Michael Manos, general manager of Microsoft's Global Foundation Services unit, first discussed the concept last spring when describing plans for its initial implementation at the company's new $500 million, 550,000-square-foot data center in Northlake, Ill.

In a blog post last week, Manos offered more details about the new infrastructure, which Microsoft calls the Generation 4 Modular Data Center. For example, he said that Microsoft engineers are creating common interfaces that will allow third-party manufacturers to plug into its computers, power supplies and generators.

Advocates say that the plans of Microsoft and others to replace conventional racks of servers with systems built into shipping containers that can be rolled right into buildings will make it far easier to set up data centers and to add processing power as needed. The modular infrastructure also eases the expansion of compute clouds that deliver online IT services.

"Gen 4 will move data centers from a custom design-and-build model to a commoditized manufacturing approach," Manos said. "In short, we are striving to bring Henry Ford's Model T factory to the data center."

Microsoft said that the new infrastructure will cut in half the time it takes the company to build a data center -- from two years to one -- and may reduce its capital costs by up to 40%. With the modular design, data centers can be expanded by simply adding prebuilt servers that are delivered and run in shipping containers, Manos said. Such container-based systems are already available from Sun Microsystems, Rackable Systems, Verari Systems and other vendors.

The containerized equipment will allow Microsoft to take other radical steps, like building data centers with no roofs, Manos said. This would cut construction costs and allow for the use of outside air for cooling, one of the costliest requirements in a data center. Microsoft said it is working with server vendors to develop systems that can operate in wider temperature ranges -- from as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit up to 95 degrees -- in hopes of eliminating the need for chiller equipment at lower temperatures.

Bob Seese, chief architect at Advanced Data Centers, a San Francisco-based developer of corporate data centers, applauded Microsoft for sharing details about its plans to modularize its offerings. Companies are typically secretive about data center infrastructures, but in recent months, Microsoft and Google Inc. have started discussing their data center best practices, he added.

Ron Croce, chief operating officer at Brookfield, Conn.-based Validus DC Systems LLC, a provider of DC power infrastructures for data centers and telecommunications facilities, said that the modular approach would work for only a few companies -- such as Microsoft and Google.

For example, he said, Microsoft's online services are mostly Web-based applications running on x86 servers and don't need the level of uptime and security required by businesses in many other industries, such as financial services. "A lot of the requirements are driven by regulatory mandates," Croce said. "If you're a financial services company, you can't have a data center with no roof."

"It's certainly a valid concept, but I don't see it as suitable for everyone," noted Christopher Johnston, vice president of critical facilities at Syska Hennessy Group Inc., an engineering firm in New York. "I think people will have to make a judgment depending on the type of industry they are in."

This version of this story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
Shop Tech Products at Amazon