Posey's Tips & Tricks

A Field Trip to the Microsoft Datacenter

With a company as large as Microsoft, you would think it's datacenter would be massive. You would be right.

Recently, Microsoft invited myself and several other tech journalists to Redmond, Wash. for a Windows Server reviewer's workshop. Microsoft typically provides reviewer's workshops to journalists ahead of major product releases as a way of helping those of us who write about tech to become more familiar with the product and its new features prior to the release.

One thing that was really unique about this particular event was that it included a tour of one of Microsoft's datacenters. Getting a datacenter tour was completely unprecedented. I have been writing about all things Microsoft ever since the days of Windows 95, and this was the first time that I had ever been invited to take a look at Microsoft's datacenter.

I have to confess that although I understood the magnitude of the opportunity, I didn't really stop and think about the message that Microsoft was trying to impart -- at least not before my arrival in Redmond. In the past, Microsoft has planned various social events to go along with its reviewer's workshops. For example, the Windows Server 2012 reviewer's workshop included a night of go-cart racing. My assumption going in was that the datacenter tour was something that was meant to be fun, but also educational.

In some ways, my assumption was correct. However, Microsoft marketing department was working overtime to make sure that there was specific messaging attached to the datacenter tour. This messaging also came through during the keynotes at Microsoft Ignite. I will get to that in a moment, but first, I'm sure that you are probably curious what the Microsoft datacenter is really like.

I have to be very careful with what I say, because Microsoft has a strict nondisclosure policy, but there are a few things that I can tell you. First of all, the facility is absolutely huge. I was expecting it to be big, but was surprised by how large the facility really was. The image in Figure 1, which was provided by Microsoft, shows an aerial view of part of the facility.

[Click on image for larger view.] Figure 1. The Microsoft datacenter spans a huge amount of land.

The second thing that I can tell you is that, as you can probably figure out from the image above, the datacenter isn't located in Redmond. I am forbidden from telling you the datacenter's actual location, but I will tell you that it's a way from Redmond.

The third thing that I can tell you is that Microsoft's datacenter security is no joke. I have visited military facilities that did not have as good of security as the Microsoft datacenter.  Seriously. There were tech journalists on the tour who speculated over the possibility of whether Microsoft might be doing security posturing rather than actual security. The theory was that at least some of the security staff were actors who were there to provide the illusion of security. Personally, I don't buy into that theory. Let me tell you why.

First, I'm guessing that the Microsoft datacenter is probably a multi-billion-dollar investment. You don't neglect security when it comes to that kind of investment. Second, the datacenter was located in a tiny farming town. Microsoft probably had to promise jobs to the locals in order to get permission to build the datacenter in the first place, and the vast majority of the datacenter employees that I saw were part of the security staff.

This brings up an important point. In spite of its huge, sprawling size, the inside of the datacenter felt like a ghost town. Security aside, there was almost no one in the datacenter. Of course this totally makes sense when you stop and think about it. It would be nearly impossible to manually manage the systems within a facility of that size. As such, the management and monitoring is entirely automated. Sure, there are some tech people working at the datacenter, but there aren't many.

As previously noted, I am not at liberty to say anything super specific about the Microsoft datacenter. However, Microsoft did give me some statistics to pass along. Here are those stats, as written by Microsoft:

  • 1989: The year Microsoft opened its first datacenter on its Redmond, Wash. campus.  
  • 200-plus: The number of online services delivered by Microsoft's datacenters 24x7x365.  
  • 1 million-plus: The number of servers hosted in the datacenters. 
  • 100-plus: The number of datacenters Microsoft has in its global cloud infrastructure portfolio.
  • 30 trillion-plus: The number of data objects stored in Microsoft's datacenters.
  • 1.5 million-plus: The average number of requests Microsoft's networks process per second.
  • 3: The number of times Microsoft's fiber optic network, one of North America's largest, could stretch to the moon and back.
  • 1.125: Microsoft's average PUE for its new datacenters. Power usage effectiveness (PUE) is a metric of datacenters energy efficiency and is the ratio of the power and cooling overhead required to support server load. The industry average is 1.8. 
  • 2.3 billion kWh: The amount of green power purchased by Microsoft as part of its carbon-neutral goal -- ranking as the third most purchased by any U.S. company, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  • 16: The number of carbon offset projects Microsoft has invested in, including projects in Brazil, Cambodia, China, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Mongolia, Peru, Turkey and the United States.
  • 100 percent: The percentage of servers and electronic equipment that Microsoft sends to a third-party vendor for recycling and/or reselling after it has been securely decommissioned.

So what about that datacenter messaging that I mentioned at the beginning of the article? The basic message that Microsoft seemed to be trying to convey (and these are my words, not theirs), is that Microsoft has made a massive investment in its datacenters. Because the datacenters are so big, contain so much computing power and are so pervasive around the world, Microsoft is capable of doing things that the rest of us cannot possibly hope to do in our own datacenters. For example, during the Ignite Innovation Keynote, Microsoft demonstrated that it had the computing power to translate all of Wikipedia within a fraction of a second.

So what's my take without the marketing spin? I will be the first to say that the Microsoft datacenter was impressive. I also think that Microsoft is very well equipped to help businesses to run workloads that are too large or too impractical to run on premises. However, I don't see the Microsoft datacenter as being a replacement for the private datacenter, and I'm pretty sure that Microsoft would agree with me. In fact, during the event Microsoft acknowledged that a large percentage of its customers are moving toward a hybrid cloud environment, which of course requires resources in both the public cloud and in the organization's own datacenter.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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