A look at Microsoft's data centers

October 17, 2014

"Between Microsoft and a select few companies lies the world of personal computing, a vast sphere of virtual operations. Although Microsoft products offer a portal into this virtual realm, they're grounded in the physical world - namely, data centers. In order to power its vast corporate infrastructure, Microsoft relies on an equally broad network of data centers to maintain its constant stream of activity. Given the sheer scale of business carried out by Microsoft on a constant basis, it should come as no surprise that the company'sdata center solutions are a little different than the majority of other enterprise centers out there. Indeed, the global nature of the company means that Microsoft disperses its data across the different continents. A look at a few of Microsoft's centers reveals just how seriously the company takes the storage and management of its information. By examining Microsoft's data practices, smaller organizations can perhaps glean a model of what to aspire to when it comes to data storage.

The Chicago center
Back in September 2009, Microsoft opened the doors of a facility in Chicago to reveal a state-of-the-art data center, according to Data Center Knowledge. The company had funneled $500 million into the creation of the center and so when it opened, the inaugural ceremony was greeted with much fanfare within the industry. At 700,000 square feet, it was clear the data center was of a potentially intimidating size. But by leveraging an innovative design strategy, Microsoft was able to make a massive building something that was very manageable. The company accomplished this by dividing the center into two distinctive sections: The lower level, which featured very tall container stacks as well as a cooling infrastructure; and the second floor, which relied on raised-floor storage harnessing hot and cold aisles. Between these two sectors - the container area and the raised-floor part - Microsoft had an infrastructure that could support hundreds of thousands of servers.

Keeping any data center powered is hard. But keeping a 700,000 square-foot center up and running efficiently represents an even higher level of challenge. Fortunately, it was a challenge Microsoft's Chicago data center designers were more than suited for, and experts came up with a system to regulate energy in a way that wasn't only cost-effective, but environmentally friendly as well. That method is called water-side economization, and it means a center relies on outside air instead of chillers, which are money-sucking and a detriment to the environment. Through the process of water-side economization, a cooling tower provides the evaporative capacity necessary to create chilled water without an expensive chiller. A look at the cooling infrastructure itself reveals nothing less than a massive operation, but it's one that is environmentally conscious as well.

As Arne Josefsberg, General Manager of Infrastructure for Microsoft Global Foundation Services, told Data Center Knowledge, the Chicago center represents a step forward in data center construction - one characterized by scale that does not come at the expense of quality.

""We think of the containers as a revolutionary approach to computing at scale,"" he said. ""This is just a massive facility that will allow us to meet the demand for cloud computing at scale.""

The Dublin center
Travel across the Atlantic and you'll find a different data center that Microsoft also has in its arsenal, one located in Dublin, Ireland. This center differs from the one in Chicago in a very significant way: it has no chillers at all. So how, exactly, can it go chiller-less? It's all about the fresh air. As a Dell release points out, chiller-less centers - ones powered by free cooling or fresh air - present an unbeatable means of both saving dollars and, more importantly, helping the environment. For this reason, large companies like Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft have flocked to the idea of chiller-less centers in the past few years.

""These large and technically savvy companies have set a new standard for cost effective and environmentally friendly computing,"" the Dell report stated. ""Chiller-less economization avoids the initial capital expense of having to install chiller equipment and, by using outside air to cool the data center, it avoids the operational expense of running chillers.""

Back in 2009, when Microsoft launched its chiller-less Dublin center, the move was seen as a pretty momentous step, Data Center Knowledge reported. But now, five years out, it's seen more as a precedent-setter than anything. Along with Google, Microsoft revealed new possibilities in data center design by outfitting its Dublin center with chiller-less functionality. In a September 2009 blog post, Josefsberg stated that the ability for the company to use free cooling had the natural climate of Ireland to thank, among other factors that contributed to the center's efficacy.

""The average temperature range year round in Dublin is between 23 to 80 degrees F (-5 to 27 degrees C) and that, combined with the use of air-side economization, results in ""free cooling"" (chiller-free) operations 100 percent year round under normal operating conditions,"" Josefsberg'‹ wrote. ""This in turn significantly reduces water consumption and the use of chemicals required to treat cooling towers, which are common throughout the data center industry but not required in our Dublin facility.""

Another reason free cooling is so successful in Dublin is because Microsoft has created the data center to be able to function at 95 degrees F within the server rooms. This means that free cooling can be harnessed as an option beyond just the winter months. While smaller than the Chicago facility, the 550,000 square-foot Dublin center is still an intimidating amount of space to cool without air conditioning, but it's something that Microsoft has made entirely feasible through an expertly-designed infrastructure centered on getting the most computing power possible while expending the least energy. Despite the massive scale of its operations, Microsoft presents a valuable model for companies of all sizes to look to when they're planning to launch a data center. Storing information can be efficient, energy-conscious and cost-effective, as long as the proper consideration goes into it."



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    "Between Microsoft and a select few companies lies the world of personal computing, a vast sphere of virtual operations. Although Microsoft products offer a portal into this virtual realm, they're grounded in the physical world - namely, data centers. In order to power its vast corporate infrastructure, Microsoft relies on ...