Microsoft applies Model T factory methods to datacenters

Microsoft says its 'Gen 4' modular design approach is a faster, cheaper way to build datacenters

Microsoft has come up with a faster, cheaper way to build its datacenters over the next five years, and it says other companies could use its methods too.

Microsoft's approach, described by General Manager Michael Manos in a blog post Tuesday, uses a modular design in which standard units of computing, cooling, and electrical equipment are delivered to a facility on the back of a truck and assembled on site. The system, which Microsoft calls its "Generation 4" design, will allow its datacenters to become operational more quickly and cut the cost of building traditional, brick and mortar facilities.

[ Find out more on how Google and Microsoft are sparking interest in modular datacenters. ]

"Our 'Gen 4' modular datacenters will take the flexibility of containerized servers -- like those in our Chicago datacenter -- and apply it across the entire facility," Manos wrote, referring to servers that are delivered and run in self-contained shipping containers. "Think of it like 'building blocks,' where the datacenter will be composed of modular units of prefabricated mechanical, electrical, security components, etc., in addition to containerized servers."

Some companies already use modular computing and cooling systems for specific jobs, but Microsoft is taking the idea a step further. Its clout as a big customer means it can persuade equipment makers to build products that meet its specifications, and it is developing common interfaces for computers, power supplies and generators that manufacturers will be able to "plug into," it said.

"In short, we are striving to bring Henry Ford’s Model T factory to the datacenter. ... Gen 4 will move datacenters from a custom design and build model to a commoditized manufacturing approach. We intend to have our components built in factories and then assemble them in one location (the datacenter site) very quickly. "

It would be a big change in how datacenters are built and one that's important for Microsoft as it looks for a cost effective way to expand the infrastructure for its online services. Microsoft plans to build 20 "supersize" datacenters in the coming years at a cost of up to $1 billion each, according to a recent BusinessWeek article. Manos said the Gen 4 design will cut the time it takes Microsoft to build a datacenter in half, to one year, and reduce its capital costs by up to 40 percent.

The containerized equipment allows Microsoft to take other radical steps, like building datacenters with no roofs. Besides cutting construction costs, this makes it much easier to use outside air for cooling systems, one of the costliest areas of a datacenter. Microsoft said it is working with server vendors to develop systems that can operate in wider temperature ranges -- 10 to 35 degrees centigrade -- so that in some cases it can eliminate chiller equipment completely.

It posted a short video to give a high-level view of its plans.

Bob Seese, chief architect with Advanced Data Centers, a San Francisco company that leases datacenter space, applauded Microsoft for sharing the information. Companies are typically secretive about what goes on in their datacenters, but along with Google and some other large companies, Microsoft has been opening up recently to discuss its best practices.

Pressuring vendors to design more flexible and standardized equipment could benefit all companies, Seese said. "One of our biggest struggles in the industry has been the tail wagging the dog -- the manufacturers telling IT departments what they need. Having someone push back against the vendors could by itself change this industry tremendously," he said.

Datacenter operators are risk averse, he noted, because their jobs depend on keeping things running, and the research being done by Microsoft and others should help everyone. "As a result of their successes and failures, other companies are going to benefit," he said.

Others were less convinced. Ron Croce, the COO at datacenter infrastructure provider Validus DC Systems, said Microsoft and Google are unique in their requirements. Microsoft's online services are mostly Web-based applications running on x86 servers, he said, and don't need the level of uptime and security as firms in, say, the financial services sector.

Building traditional datacenters may not be cost-effective for Microsoft, but for other companies it's still a necessity, he said. "A lot of the requirements are driven by regulatory mandates. If you're a financial services company, you can't have a datacenter with no roof."

"It's certainly a valid concept but I don't see it as suitable for everyone," said Christopher Johnston, vice president of critical facilities at Syska Hennessy Group. "I think people will have to make a judgment depending on the type of industry they are in."

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