Think big, green: Microsoft's mall-size datacentres

Just 30 people - and that includes IT administrators, security and janitorial staffers - will tend 'tens of thousands' of servers

Microsoft is developing 1 million square feet of datacentre space in the US in separate projects in Austin and near Chicago as it adds to its technological capacity to provide online services.

These are huge facilities. If shopping in a large mall is tiring, imagine working in Microsoft's new Northlake, Ill., datacentre, announced this week. It will be 550,000 square feet — about 12 acres, or more than 10 football fields — in area, enough room to comfortably house four or five "big-box" retailers.

The company began building a 447,000-square-foot datacentre in Austin in July and expects to have it operating by next summer. The Chicago centre will begin operations sometime early next spring.

But a retail store, or for that matter a fast-food restaurant, may have more people working at it than Microsoft's massive datacentre in Northlake will have. Just 30 people — and that includes IT administrators, security and janitorial staffers — will tend "tens of thousands" of servers, which is as specific as Mike Manos, senior director of datacentre services at Microsoft, would get about the facility's expected computing power.

Microsoft will rely heavily on automation to run its datacentre, said Manos.

"When you get to a certain level of size and scale, if you are not driving toward a significant level of automation, you are doing it all wrong, I think," he said.

While the staff at the facility will be small, Brad Day, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, said he believes the datacentre will be keeping many more people outside the centre busy, especially IT vendors supplying equipment and services. By choosing the Chicago area, Microsoft's executives "are trying to bring their services professionals much closer to the line of business," said Day.

Mark Levin, a consultant at benchmarking firm Metrics Based Assessments, said he suspects that Microsoft is only counting direct operations people at the site, not the systems administrators, storage managers and database administrators, many of whom can work remotely.

Microsoft needs datacentre space, in part, for some new services, including storage space for customers to house high-definition video, music and documents under its planned Microsoft Live Drive program.

Google is building large datacentres in areas where electricity is inexpensive, such as next to the hydropower-rich Columbia River in the Dalles, Ore., or in rural areas. But Chicago is not without its intrinsic advantages, said Manos, a Windy City native.

Microsoft will in fact be taking advantage of a natural Chicagoland feature to help cut energy costs at that facility. It's called air-side economisation — otherwise known as opening a window. From fall to spring in Chicago, "the air outside isn't necessarily warm," said Manos, and cooler air will be used to help chill the datacentre. Pacific Gas & Electric, in particular, has been advocating the technology and has said that doing so can cut cooling costs by 60%.

Microsoft is leasing the datacentre facility, which was was originally developed by Ascent and The Koman Group. The original plan was to provide datacentre space for about eight companies until Microsoft asked for the entire facility, said Phil Horstmann, CEO of St. Louis-based Ascent, a datacentre development firm.

The Northlake facility is near a utility transmission line and has access to six fibre-optic networks. When Microsoft is done with its work, it may be one of the largest datacentres in the US "I don't know of any others this size, of true datacentres," said Horstmann.

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