Microsoft cuts ribbon on mega data center

Microsoft's behemoth 700,000-square foot data center relies on shipping containers and loading bays.

Microsoft held a grand opening yesterday for its Chicago-area data center, a 700,000-square-foot behemoth that looks more like a shipping warehouse than a compute center.

What goes into a 700,000-square-foot container-based data center?
  • 3,000 construction jobs
  • 45 permanent jobs
  • 1.5 million man-hours of labor
  • 3,400 tons of steel
  • 2,400 tons of copper
  • 26,000 cubic yards of concrete
  • 190 miles of conduit
  • 7.5 miles of chilled water piping
  • Located in the Chicago suburb of Northlake just south of O'Hare International Airport, the facility is a container-based data center, consisting of rows of so-called infrastructure spines that provide power and cooling. Each row, about 100 yards long, supports eight loading bays on each side. The spines support 112 loading bays, each of which can handle two standard 40-foot shipping containers, stacked atop one another. Each container, in turn, can hold approximately 2,000 servers. Altogether, the facility has the compute capacity of almost a half-million servers.

    The data center strays far from the traditional data center design of a raised floor and rows of server cabinets. It has 30 megawatts of power capacity and a price tag of a $.5 billion. In addition to showing off its data center muscle, Microsoft used the grand opening to sell its own software and services.

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    Designing a maintainable and fault-tolerant facility
    "This is just a massive facility," said Arne Josefsberg, general manager of infrastructure services for the company. "It will meet our demands for cloud computing and online services."

    Kevin Timmons, the general manager of data center operations, outlined some benefits of a container-based data center. Since the containers come with the servers inside, cardboard and other typical server packaging is reduced. Ditto cabling. One power conduit enters each container-sized data center, meaning copper costs are cut. The building also employs water-side economizing that uses outside temperatures to cool the chilled water supply. During the grand opening, the entire facility ran on water-side economizers.

    More work to be done
    The data center is far from full. The first phase, known as CH1, has 56 loading bays, but only a dozen are occupied. The facility began production in July. The second phase, CH2, will also have capacity for 56 loading bays, but is not yet built out and ready for production.

    This is just a massive facility. It will meet our demands for cloud computing and online services.
    Arne Josefsberg,
    general manager of infrastructure servicesMicrosoft
    How each shipping container goes from a trailer truck to an operating data center is a feat of engineering that takes about eight hours from start to finish, according to data center manager Sean Farney. The truck backs into the building and in between a large gantry that lifts the container off the truck with massive hooks. The gantry sets the 30-ton container down on compressed air skates, which move the container to its loading bay. The container is then plugged into power, chilled water and networking. Servers are booted up, and the container is ready for production. Containers can be single- or double-stacked. In the latter configuration, the compute resources are typically in the bottom container, with additional power and cooling resources in the top. Yesterday, Farney offered a quick peek into one of the containers, which was full of 1U Dell servers – a single row of 24 racks stacked 50U high for a total of 1,200 servers.

    Farney said the temperature in the cold and hot aisles was kept higher than in most data centers, but wouldn't' specify further. He did say, however, that his data center staff enters the containers infrequently, as the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doesn't consider them to be a working space.

    "It's a giant computer," Farney said. "We don't work in it."

    In general, the data center is built so that the containers, not the servers inside them, get replaced. The company is willing to absorb a certain amount of server failure inside before replacing the whole container. Farney said the threshold depends on the application and server hardware type, and wouldn't specify more than that. For redundancy, the facility has 30 megawatts of backup battery-based uninterruptible power supply (UPS), and 11 2.8-megawatt diesel generators that can run the facility in an emergency for two days.

    Let us know what you think about the story; email Mark Fontecchio, News Writer. Also, check out our blogs: Data Center Facilities Pro, Mainframe Propeller Head and Server Farming.

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