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Microsoft opens Windy City data center

The software maker opens what it says just might be the world's largest data center in the outskirts of Chicago.

Microsoft's Chicago data center offers a merge of old and new techniques. The ground floor features sealed containers with tightly packed racks of servers, while the second floor houses more traditional server rooms. Microsoft

CHICAGO--On most days it takes the right access badge and a biometric scan to make it inside the doors of Microsoft's massive data center. But on Wednesday, the company allowed a group of reporters, customers, and partners to tour the 700,000 square foot facility.

The data center, along with another just-opened facility in Dublin, Ireland and existing centers in San Antonio and Quincy, Wash., serve as the guts behind Microsoft's online ambitions, from Bing to Hotmail to Windows Azure.

But, for all its strategic import, the ground floor of the Chicago plant looks more like a truck parking lot than a traditional data center. In each parking spot, though, Microsoft can drop off a container packed with up to 2,000 servers.

Right now, only about a dozen of the 56 container spots are filled, but Microsoft executives said they expect that to change quickly. The software maker expects to eventually spend up to $500 million filling up the Chicago site with gear.

The site was originally slated to open months earlier, but Microsoft delayed things due to the economy. Eventually, though, it decided to move forward.

"Investing in these uncertain economic times is always a tough choice," said Arne Josefsberg, general manager of infrastructure services Microsoft's data center operations. But, he added, "We take a very long-term approach to the business.

The data center itself is housed in an unmarked warehouse in one of the Chicago area's many industrial districts. (The software maker didn't want the exact location disclosed.)

Microsoft picked the spot because of its convenient spot close to cheap and abundant power as well as the fact it sits atop a major Internet connection point that houses major east-west and north-south fiber routes.

"It's a lot about location, location, location," Josefsberg said.

I'll have a ton more to say in a follow-up post, including a bunch more pictures and some video interviews, but I wanted to share a few initial thoughts before hopping a plane to the Seattle area, where I will be working for the rest of the week.