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Microsoft To Mainstream Containerized Data Centers With C-Blox

The server-packed shipping units allow Microsoft to run its entire $500 million Northlake facility with a continuous staff of little more than 20 or 30 employees.

For all the talk Sun Microsystems and Rackable raised about building data centers from stacks of shipping containers, another company, Microsoft, is finally delivering one of the first real case studies by building a container-based data center itself.

Several companies have come out with containerized data center products, including Sun's MD S20 (formerly known as Project Blackbox), Rackable's Integrated Concerto Environment Cube (ICE Cube), and Verari's Forest. These have been largely marketed as products suited for portable data center needs and disaster recovery and as additions to existing data centers, but Microsoft is taking a more comprehensive approach.

The first floor of Microsoft's $500 million Northlake, Ill., data center, which is currently under construction, will house between 150 and 220 industry-standard 40-foot shipping containers holding between 1,000 and 2,000 physical servers apiece, or somewhere between 150,000 and 440,000 servers in total. According to Microsoft general manager of data center services Michael Manos, that's as many as 11 times the number of servers a conventional data center that size would have.

"We really look at containers as an opportunity to increase scale and drive even more efficiency into our data centers," Manos said in an interview. "We've upped the unit of storage from one server to a rack of servers to a container."

Microsoft has developed its own specifications that include, for example, configuration for electrical components and the layout of physical servers, for its containers. Those specs make Microsoft's containers different from anything on the market today, and a potential opportunity for future Microsoft products. The containers, which Microsoft calls C-blox, are largely self-contained and will require very little hands-on maintenance.

"The doors are closed, and because of the level of automation in our systems, we can run it and accept a certain amount of failure over time," Manos said. Manos argues that it is more cost effective to build redundancy and automation into Microsoft's data center applications and allow some hardware to fail than it would be to physically manage such a large data center. The hands-off approach also means design can be tweaked to allow for maximum cooling and energy efficiency without worrying about how accessible the systems are to human hands. Of course, Microsoft also builds backbones that link power, cooling, and bandwidth among the containers.

In the C-blox world, a truck drops off a data center container and then picks it up again in a few years when Microsoft is ready to switch over to new hardware. Administrators will only enter the physical C-blox in the rarest of occasions. "In that sense, your IT workers look more like truckers and longshoremen than traditional IT workers," Manos said. It will also allow Microsoft to run the entire Northlake facility with a continuous staff of little more than 20 or 30 employees.

Manos admitted that despite huge interest from hundreds of people after he gave a keynote address at Data Center World last week, containerized data centers aren't for every company. Microsoft's own deployment relies on a highly automated, virtualized infrastructure and substantial monitoring and management tools in order to be so hands-off. The data centers automatically provision and reprovision virtual servers and even heal themselves when problems occur. For most companies, such extensive virtualization and automation remains little more than a multiyear plan, not a reality.

"If you think about the applications, you really have to do a pretty significant analysis on containers," he said. "Can your apps survive significant degradation over time, what are the latencies between applications, and can you drive your infrastructure to really make use of these things? There's a lot of applications that don't make sense, and there's a pretty introspective analysis needed."

Despite the warnings, one thing Microsoft can do is legitimize by example that a company can use shipping containers to build an entire data center, rather than just using them as supplemental server capacity. And that's exactly what it has set out to do.

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