Microsoft Building 'Containerized' Data Center

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2008-04-01

Microsoft Building 'Containerized' Data Center

LAS VEGAS-Microsoft is in the process of building the industry's first container-based data center.

Microsoft first said a year ago that it was considering the idea, and now the concept is coming to fruition, Michael Manos, Microsoft's senior director of Data Center Services, said April 1 in a keynote address at the AFCOM Data Center World conference here.

The new center will be located in Northlake, Ill., near Chicago. Microsoft is also building new data centers in San Antonio; Quincy, Wash.; and Dublin, Ireland. The Chicago facility will be the only one with a "containerized" floor.

"This is the first data center of this kind that we know of, and we've seen a lot of them," Microsoft Principal Power and Cooling Architect Christian Belady told eWEEK.

It is an emerging trend in the industry for data centers to use containers as a key component. Sun Microsystems introduced the idea in October 2006 with its Project Blackbox data center, and it has been selling them in increasing numbers ever since.

Each Blackbox package combines storage, computing, and network infrastructure hardware and software-along with high-efficiency power and liquid cooling-in modular units based on standard 20-by-8-by-8-foot shipping containers.

Each unit holds up to 250 Sun Fire blade servers (standard 19-inch-wide size) and provides up to 1.5 petabytes of disk storage, 2 petabytes of tape storage and up to 7TB of RAM. A fully configured Blackbox unit weighs under 20,000 pounds and has front and rear doors, seven service access points inside, and cutting-edge cooling and power distribution equipment.  

What makes Microsofts containers different

Microsoft's containers are similar in design to Sun's, only Microsoft will be using its own software and server and storage hardware from partners such as Hewlett-Packard, Dell, NetApp and IBM. The containers themselves are also much larger-40 feet in length.
"We're using the extra-large shipping containers as a model," Manos said. "They'll hold anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 servers of any size, all in racks." Each container will be a little bit different from the next, depending on the customer, he said.

"All we care about is the power that goes in and the performance that comes out," Belady said. "The customer doesn't really care what's inside. We'll take care of that, and we'll make these scale to whatever computing job needs to be done."

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"These are designed so that all the containers are on the ground floor-so that delivery trucks can just drive right up to the doors and drop them [the containers] right near where they will be installed," Manos told about 1,000 IT and data center managers at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

"These containers are the way to go," Manos said. "Once the racks inside these things are hooked up and turned on, they [all the servers] discover each other automatically. They're ready to go to work in very little time."

The containers can house application servers, storage devices or a mix of both.

Microsoft also likes the fact that it's much easier and more efficient to record the I/O of each box for green IT purposes, Manos said.

"It's a cardinal sin for us at Microsoft to not use any of the power that we draw," he said. "That's a waste, and we're very cognizant of that."

Container-based data centers allow for better IT reporting all around, Manos said. Users will be able to chart the IT productivity of each unit and get clean statistics on data such as e-mail usage, search queries and any number of other business processes, Manos said.

The Chicago-area data center is expected to be completed later in the summer of 2008, as are the other three data centers. Each center will employ about 35 people on a 24/7 basis, Manos said.

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