Global CIO: Microsoft Opens $500M Data Center Mothballed In January - InformationWeek

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Bob Evans
Bob Evans

Global CIO: Microsoft Opens $500M Data Center Mothballed In January

Now that Microsoft's massive Chicago data center has been delayed, mothballed, purchased, and finally opened, it's time for the $500 million drama queen to grow up.

You want your data center to be many things, but drama queen is not one of them. And while Microsoft's brand-new, colossal, $500 million data center near O'Hare Airport will probably turn out to be as outwardly dull as a pantomime in the fog, it's had a turbulent gestation period: in January, Microsoft delayed its opening indefinitely as part of the company's plan to cut $700 million dollars in costs, including the phased layoff of 5,000 workers.

Of course, given the complexity of the stuff that the 700,000-square-foot Northlake facility will house, some ups and downs were to be expected in the 22 months since Microsoft disclosed it was the lessee for the giant Chicago facility already under construction. And those gyrations are the direct result of the wide-ranging and ambitious shift Microsoft is making in converting to a data-center-centric infrastructure, a move that highlights the significance of the Northlake facility as Microsoft's future business becomes ever more reliant on its web-based delivers more web-based Online, Live, and Cloud software and services. Consider the following:

*As of 18 months ago, Microsoft was "adding 10,000 to 20,000 servers per month to its computing infrastructure," reported, and in less than four years from now expects "to have 15 times as many servers as it does now" (emphasis added), Microsoft director of data center services Mike Manos says in that article.

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*Microsoft's power consumption could also "increase at a similar 15X rate—which is why [Manos] is focused on the value of electrons as well as hardware," the article says.

*Of the $500 million in construction costs that Microsoft spent on the facility, the company projected that 82%, or $416 million, would go toward electrical and mechanical infrastructure.

*The facility has 400,000 square feet of raised floor, is located on 16 acres, and can deliver 120 megawatts of power (150 watts psf), "making it one of the most powerful [data centers] in the country, said developer Koman Group.

*In spite of its enormous size—bigger than 16 football fields—the facility will probably not employ more than 75 workers.

*Containers will play a huge role in the new facility. "Two-thirds of the Chicago data center is optimized for housing containerized servers," says an entry about Northlake on the Microsoft data center blog. "Containers conserve energy and will help us realize new advancements in power efficiency with a PUE yearly average calculated at 1.22. These prepackaged units (with up to 1,800 to 2,500 servers each) can be wheeled into the facility and made operational within hours, so they represent important advances in the ability to quickly and efficiently provision capacity. The density inside the containers can exceed 10 times that of traditional data centers" (emphasis added).

*And perhaps most ambitious of all, the Internet lives there! I'm not kidding—the Northlake data center is "the place where the Internet lives," Microsoft said in a November 2007 press release announcing its plans for the facility. (If that's the case, then does Al Gore have visitation rights?)

So while the massive data center is clearly a lot more complicated than a weekend project of putting up a tool shed with two electrical outlets, the Northlake project has gone through some very serious changes in the 22 months since Microsoft made its plans known. And in a case of rotten timing, Microsoft made that announcement in November 2007, "barely a month before the current recession began," reported

At that time, Microsoft expected it to open in mid-2008 but various delays pushed that opening into early 2009, which is when Microsoft took the painful step of announcing its first-ever layoffs that would cut the workforce by 5,000 as part of the company's across-the-board cost cuts. In that difficult context, Microsoft said, the company planned to complete construction of the Northlake facility but would delay its opening indefinitely. As the article reported:

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