Microsoft Open Sources Data Center Server, Software Specs

The company is joining the Open Compute Project and contributing the specs for the hardware that runs such services as Windows Azure and Bing.

Microsoft will contribute the server designs and management software it has developed to run its cloud-based services like Windows Azure, Office 365 and the Bing search engine to the Open Compute Project, a move that would have been surprising only a few years ago.

Microsoft officials announced Jan. 28 at the Open Compute Summit that the software giant also will join the consortium, which was created by Facebook in 2011 as a way to create the highly cost-effective and energy-efficient data center systems needed by cloud providers and Web-based companies.

Such companies—from Amazon Web Services and Facebook to Google and Microsoft—run massive data centers that process huge numbers of workloads. The need for power efficiency, cost savings and easy management in these hyperscale environments are crucial. Some vendors—most notably Facebook and Google—are migrating away from off-the-shelf commodity systems from the likes of Hewlett-Packard and Dell and instead are designing their own servers, networking appliances and storage systems, and leveraging open-source operating systems like Linux.

Microsoft, which runs more than 1 million servers in its data centers, has been one of those vendors, and now is contributing its hardware and software designs to the Open Compute Project (OCP).

"The Microsoft cloud server specification essentially provides the blueprints for the datacenter servers we have designed to deliver the world's most diverse portfolio of cloud services," Bill Laing, corporate vice president of cloud and enterprise at Microsoft, said in a Jan. 27 post on the company blog. "These servers are optimized for Windows Server software and built to handle the enormous availability, scalability and efficiency requirements of Windows Azure, our global cloud platform."

The result has been "dramatic improvements over traditional enterprise server designs: up to 40 percent server cost savings, 15 percent power efficiency gains and 50 percent reduction in deployment and service times," wrote Laing, who was on stage Jan. 28 at the event in San Jose, Calif., to make the announcement.

Microsoft also has been able to reduce network cabling by 1,100 miles and metal by 10,000 tons across those 1 million-plus servers, he said. According to Microsoft, those servers deliver more than 200 services to more than 1 billion customers and more than 20 million businesses in more than 90 markets. The software code the company has created to manage the hardware touches on a range of areas, from server diagnostics to power supply to fan control.

The Microsoft server design includes a 12U (21-inch) chassis made for standard EIA racks and that can hold up to 23 commodity servers. There also is an option for JBOD ("just a bunch of disks") storage expansion plus shared management, power and fans.

Microsoft in the past was never accused of being a good friend of the open-source movement. However, in his blog post, Laing wrote that the software vendor has had an open approach with what it's learned in cloud hardware design. The company's Global Foundation Services group more than five years ago started offering data center research and other information to hardware partners, and now some partners at the Open Compute Summit are showing off hardware that is based on the Microsoft OCP specs. He also noted that through its Cloud OS strategy, Microsoft has taken what it offers in cloud platforms like Azure and offers it to enterprise customers and partners to build private cloud environments of their own.

"That consistency gives customers more flexibility to move and manage enterprise applications across clouds, and more choice in the IT models that best fit their needs and budgets," Laing wrote. "Similarly, the Microsoft cloud server specification for OCP will help drive hardware innovation for cloud computing, which strengthens the Cloud OS vision to give customers a consistent platform for better IT efficiency and economics."

At the same time, the move to contribute the design specifications to the OCP also gives Microsoft another avenue into a growing hyperscale data center environment that has tended toward Linux as its operating system.