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Microsoft data centers go beyond the container

Redmond says that the next generation of data center will have everything except the concrete floor already pre-built.

Microsoft's data center of the future will be more like a trailer park.

Only the concrete pad will need to be built on-site, with everything else shipped in as a pre-manufactured unit. That's a step beyond the current approach, used in places like the company's massive new Chicago data center, where Microsoft has the servers shipped in a container but still requires a traditional building to provide water and cooling.

A proof-of-concept version of the prefab units that will make up Microsoft's data center of the future. Microsoft

Data centers are key to the economics of Microsoft's future--everything from Bing to the cloud-based Windows Azure to the Microsoft-hosted versions of today's software like Exchange and SharePoint

"Our plan for the future is to have essentially everything but the concrete pad pre-manufactured and then assembled on site: the IT, mechanical and electrical components are all part of pre-assembled components that we call an 'ITPAC,'" general manager Kevin Timmons said in a blog posting on Tuesday.

Timmons said that the units will be made from standard recyclable parts such as steel and aluminum and will be able to be cooled with as little as a single water hose using residential levels of water pressure.

The units could house anywhere from 400 to 2,500 servers and draw between 200 kilowatts and 600 kilowatts. With automation, Timmons said that a single person could build a unit in just four days. The units could either be placed in a large building, or even placed outside as long as they had protective panels attached.

"We believe that by utilizing this new approach, Microsoft can reduce the time it takes to ramp up new cloud computing capacity in half the time as traditional data center infrastructures, as well as significantly reduce the cost of the building," Timmons said. "This gives us the flexibility to grow without having to commit to a large upfront investment for a data center and hope that demand shows up later."

The units also have significant environmental benefits over prior data center designs, using far less water--as little as 1 percent of traditional data centers--and using ambient air as opposed to requiring expensive chillers to cool the servers.

On the down side, Timmons isn't expecting to win any beauty prizes for the new-look data centers.

"These facilities will not be pretty and might actually resemble the barns I spent so much time around during my childhood in rural Illinois," he said.

Microsoft had said as early as 2008 that it planned to head in this direction. It showed off an early version of the self-contained unit at last year's Professional Developers Conference.

Here's a video (Silverlight required) that Microsoft posted to its Web site, showing its data center plan:

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