Microsoft has seen the future of the datacenter, and oddly enough it's missing a roof.
The company's future datacenter design, which will be its de facto standard in five years, is a cross between an electrical switching station, an RV-park and the closing "warehouse" scene from the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark .
The company envisions a set of prefabricated containers the size of a semi-trailer filled with as many as 2,000 preconfigured servers. The containers can be parked next to and plugged into pre-built mechanical, electrical, cooling and security components. In essence, it is a giant collection of boxes and pluggable components that can grow and shrink based on need.
The container portion of the idea is nothing revolutionary. Microsoft is installing them in its Chicago datacenter. Sun introduced a server container called Project Blackbox in 2006 and Google received a patent in 2007 on its "mobile datacenter" stored in a standard shipping container, which unlike Sun's Blackbox, could be clustered in the same modular fashion that Microsoft is proposing.
The container idea also has its critics who say they are rife with electrical and mechanical concerns, have power management and cooling issues, present a single point of failure, and are susceptible to damage during shipping.
Microsoft, however, is not just talking about containers, but the configuration of the entire datacenter.
The company this week unveiled what it is calling its "Generation 4 Modular Data Center" plan, a blueprint that will define its cloud datacenter infrastructure in the next five years.
The datacenters have four walls and a sophisticated perimeter security system, but are open to the elements as they lack a roof. Trucks wheel the boxes into the enclosure where they are connected to power/cooling stations before being brought online.
It's a bold plan to drive industry thinking about how to construct and operate datacenters in a world of capacity spikes, real-time needs for computing power and expanding green initiatives.
"We believe it is one of the most revolutionary changes to happen to datacenters in the last 30 years," said Michael Manos, general manager of global foundation services for Microsoft, in his blog introducing Microsoft's Generation 4 plan.
BusinessWeek reported last month that Microsoft said it was going to "reinvent the infrastructure of our industry" by building some 20 datacenters that can carry a price tag as much as $1 billion apiece.