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6/12/2008
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Inside Microsoft's $550 Million Mega Data Centers

A tour of Microsoft's gargantuan, under-construction San Antonio data center reveals a state-of-the-art IT infrastructure on an immense scale.

Though the building alone covers a whopping 11 acres, you can't even see Microsoft's new $550 million data center in the hills west of San Antonio until you're practically on top of it. But by that point, you can hardly see anything else.




A "spine" of wires and pipes supplies power, cooling and other vital resources throughout Microsoft's Chicago data center, which is under construction.
(click for image gallery)

These days, the massive data center is a bustling construction zone where visitors have to wear hardhats, helmets, orange safety vests, goggles and gloves. By September, it'll be the newest star in Microsoft's rapidly expanding collection of massive data centers, powering Microsoft's forays into cloud computing like Live Mesh and Exchange Online, among plenty of other as-yet-unannounced services. Pulling in, visitors are stopped by Securitas guards who check IDs and ask if they work for Microsoft. An incomplete gate marks the way. Microsoft's general manager of data center services, Mike Manos, won't say exactly what security measures will be in place when the data center opens, but won't rule anything out. "Will the gates be able to stop a speeding Mack truck?" I ask. "Or more," he responds. "Will you have biometrics?" "We have just about everything."

As the car rounds the bend beyond the gate, the building sweeps into full view. The San Antonio data center building itself is 475,000 square feet, or about 11 acres. It's a 1.3 mile walk to circumnavigate the building. To get a perspective on that, it's one building that's the size of almost 10 football fields laid out side-by-side, or 1/10th the floor space of the entire Sears Tower, covered with servers and electrical equipment. "I thought I understood what scale looked like," Manos says.

When the San Antonio data center was under peak construction, 965 people were working full time to build it, with more than 15 trucks of material coming and going each day in order to get the job done in 18 months from scouting the site to opening up. The facilities were built with continuous workflow of materials in mind, even after the site's completion.

As one walks toward the data center's main entrance, a feature that stands out is a row of several truck bays much like would be seen in an industrial park. Trucks pull up and leave servers or other materials inside the bays or "truck tracks," to be picked up and inventoried in the next room and then moved to storage or deployment.

Most everything in the data center is functional. On the small scale, wainscoting-like pieces of plywood cover the bottom of hallway walls to protect both the walls and servers and other equipment moving back and forth. On the large scale, San Antonio is actually two data centers side by side to separate business risk. "One side could burn down and the other one could continue to operate," Manos says.

The components inside are just as gargantuan as those on the outside. Seven massive battery rooms contain hundreds of batteries and 2.7 mW of back-up power apiece. Very few industrial sites, among them aluminum smelters, silicon manufacturers and automobile factories, consume as much energy as mega data centers of the order Microsoft is building.

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