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Microsoft Touting Energy-Efficient Data Centers at Tech-Ed

Wednesday at Tech-Ed in Atlanta, Rick Bakken, senior director of data center evangelism at Microsoft, revealed during a breakout session that the next generation of Microsoft data centers will be smaller, air-cooled facilities that will use less power and cost less to operate.

Microsoft's Chicago datacenter, now about four years old, is a staggeringly large facility, with two separate power supplies for redundancy and a massive water-based cooling system. The colossus is one of a group of large datacenters Microsoft has built around the world in recent years. But the next generation of Microsoft data centers will look very different, Bakken said.

"We're not doing this again," Bakken said, noting that much of the cost of building the facility went into "cement, copper and steel," rather than into actual technology, such as servers. Microsoft won't close its big data centers, Bakken said, but it will begin building what he called "edge nodes," smaller, cheaper data centers that will use less power and can even be relocated if necessary.

"We're still going to have our large data centers," Bakken said. But he explained that edge nodes "are not billion-dollar data centers. I can build these a lot faster and a lot cheaper. If you make a mistake, you can pick it up and move it," Bakken said.

Microsoft's construction of massive data centers might have gotten a bit out of control, Bakken said. "The amount of usage of the failover systems in most of our data centers .001 percent of the time, and the majority of that is testing," he said. "The fact that we have 12 diesel generators running behind that is probably overkill."

Edge nodes, on the other hand, will reside in what Bakken called IT pre-assembled components, or ITPACs. Modular buildings much smaller than Microsoft's current enormous data centers will house Microsoft's servers, which the company will cool not exclusively with pumped water but with a system called adiabatic cooling. Essentially, outside air will cool the facilities, and hot or cold water will regulate the indoor temperature only when the temperature outside becomes unacceptably hot or cold.

Microsoft used the adiabatic model for its recently completed Dublin data center, Bakken said. Letting in outside air rather than exclusively using water to cool data centers can reduce operating expenses for the facilities significantly, he said.

"We built a fully redundant data center in Dublin," Bakken said. "We run 365 days a year on outside air. [We're] not pumping water through for cooling. If you can take advantage of outside air, you don't have to put massive infrastructure in place. If you're not playing around with a bunch of environments, your operating expenses go down 60 percent."

Also during his talk, Bakken rattled off a couple of startling facts about Microsoft's data center infrastructure: "We buy between 2 and 5 percent of the servers manufactured in the world every quarter," he said. "If we were an ISP, we'd be the fifth-largest provider in the world." 

About the Author

Lee Pender is the executive features editor of Redmond magazine. You can reach him at lpender@redmondmag.com or follow him on Twitter.

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