In the years to come, Microsoft's data centers may not be huge buildings tightly packed with server racks, but rather rows of small, stand-alone IT units spread across acres and acres of cool, cheap land.
At the DatacenterDynamics conference in New York on Wednesday, Microsoft data center general manager Kevin Timmons outlined some prototype work his unit is doing to design its next generation of data centers, in collaboration with Microsoft Research.
His vision is radically different from most of what the company already has in place.
The company is field-testing something Timmons calls IT PACs, or IT preassembled components, which are small, self-contained units that are assembled off-site and can be linked together to build out an entire data center.
Microsoft, he said, is facing the same challenges as most data center operators. It needs the ability to ramp up capacity in short order, but would like to avoid the massive up-front costs and long lead times required to build out traditional data centers. Given this set of conditions, Microsoft's goal for building its next set of data centers is "ultra-modularity," Timmons said.
Instead of paying $400 million or more up front to build a data center, Microsoft would prefer to purchase some land, build a sub-station and then populate the acreage with modular units of servers as demand grows.
"We want to view our data centers as more of a traditional manufacturing supply chain, instead of monolithic builds," he said. "It won't all be built on-site in one shot."
By going with this approach, Microsoft can cut the time it takes to ramp up new server capability in half, as well as reduce the costs of building out new data centers, Timmons predicted. "You don't have to commit to a $400 million data center and hope that demand shows up," he said.
Over the past few years Microsoft has been moving toward more modular designs, moving from purchasing individual servers to racks of servers to, most recently, entire containers filled with servers. Microsoft built out its past two data centers, located outside of Chicago and Dublin, using, in part, containers.
The new design takes this modularity concept even further.
The IT PACs are "not really containers in a traditional sense," Timmons said. "They are really integrated air-handling and IT units."
The units themselves could hold anywhere from one to 10,000 servers. The idea is that when the software giant requires more resources, it can have one of these IT PACs shipped to location and "plugged into the spine," which supplies the power and network connectivity to the data center.
Microsoft has built two proof-of-concept models so far. Its next data center, which the company will announce in a few months, will use some form of these IT PACs, Timmons said.