Microsoft's Data Centers Take a Page From Henry Ford

Microsoft recently outlined its plan for data centers as it begins its expansion into cloud services with its Azure platform, and the software company’s emphasis on commodity gear and modular components hearkens back to Henry Ford’s first production line. Much like Ford said that customers could have “any color so long as it’s black,” Microsoft’s Kevin Timmons, general manager of data center services, is encouraging mass production and commodity parts  in order to cut deployment times and costs.

Timmons, who I interviewed two weeks ago week at Microsoft headquarters, said the company has hundreds of thousands of servers, and its vision is to deploy them wherever needed in a few weeks time. And on Tuesday he outlined how Microsoft plans to do this with little environmental impact:

Our plan for the future is to have essentially everything but the concrete pad pre-manufactured and then assembled on site: the IT, mechanical and electrical components are all part of Pre-Assembled Components that we call an “ITPAC.” We actually think of the ITPACs not as containers in a traditional sense but as integrated air-handling and IT units.

The units will be assembled entirely from commercially available recyclable components such as steel and aluminum and the cooling requirements for the ITPACs will be met by more efficient means, such as a single water hose with residential levels of pressure to control ambient temperatures. The servers will be stacked in rows, sandwiched between air intake and output vents.

The mission is to support Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing service that went live formally this year (for those interested in cloud computing or data centers, check out our Structure 10 conference in June). Timmons envisions setting up tiny contained data centers in countries where those in power need to ensure the information stored on the Azure cloud stays within the country’s geographic boundaries.

That means tiny data centers in the middle of Africa or giant ones such as the one in Chicago. Check out the video below for more details, or download the presentation on the topic. What’s cool is that because Microsoft wants this sort of modular data center approach to be as cheap as possible, it’s sharing its infrastructure plans with the world in hopes that other firms embrace them, bringing greater economies of scale to the components Redmond will need.


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Image courtesy of Flickr user Danacea

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