Microsoft’s Quest for Greater Efficiency in the Cloud

REDMOND, Wash. — April 19, 2011 — Christian Belady has spent his career studying and designing server products and their environments. Over the past decade he has watched the physical footprint of datacenters expand as more consumers and companies move to the cloud. Today, Microsoft’s largest datacenter is the equivalent of 17 football fields.

Microsoft’s modular datacenter in Quincy, Wash., uses self-contained, pre-assembled components (PACs) to deliver greater efficiencies.

As Microsoft’s general manager of Datacenter Advanced Development, Belady now spends his time pondering what might be the ultimate game-changer for the industry: “My goal in life is to make the datacenter disappear,” he said.

He’s only half joking. Belady and Microsoft are working to shrink the huge amount of infrastructure currently needed to run a datacenter. Belady estimates that 50 percent of the power consumed by a typical datacenter isn’t for its servers, but the mechanical and electrical infrastructure that runs them: chillers, generators, uninterruptible power supply (UPS), batteries, and air handlers.

However, with the improvements Microsoft’s team has made over the past four years, the company is now building datacenters in which less than 10 percent of the power is consumed by the infrastructure. This is significantly more efficient than the industry average, he said.

“As consumers and organizations continue to shift to cloud-based computing models, the demands on datacenters will grow exponentially,” said Belady, who In 2010 was recognized in the industry as one of the “Five People Who Changed the Datacenter.”

“Add rising energy costs and concern about carbon emissions to the mix, and efficient datacenter operations become critical. It’s essential that datacenter operators embrace new ways to measure, monitor and reduce energy use and carbon emissions to stay competitive and do the right thing for our global environment,” said Belady.

Measuring Efficiency

Christian Belady, Microsoft’s general manager of Datacenter Advanced Development.

Making the datacenter disappear is perhaps the logical end to a journey Belady began more than a decade ago. He first became intrigued with the idea of efficient computing in the ’90s, when he worked on server and datacenter designs at HP. He can even pinpoint the exact moment: on a conference call while trying to convince executives of the importance of efficient datacenter operations. Belady heard in the background an announcement about rolling brownouts. “I ended my presentation right there and said ‘I rest my case,’” Belady said. “This is why we need to think about efficient datacenter design. That was the inflection point of my career.”

He also did his best to make the case externally to customers, developing a bullet list of best practices companies should take to improve efficiency. The problem was that there was no way for a company to measure whether or not the changes were working. On a plane ride back from Japan, where a customer told him it was reverting back to its old way of doing things since it couldn’t measure the efficiency improvements, Belady pondered on what kind of metric could show them the improvement. That is when he created the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) metric in 2001. PUE is now a global standard used by industry organizations including the European Union Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Green Grid, a global consortium of about 200 companies that Belady helped found.

Mathematically, PUE is straightforward: Divide the total power consumption for the entire facility by the power consumed by the core IT components – the servers and storage and network equipment. A PUE of 1.5, for examples, means that for every 1 watt of server power, another 0.5 watts is used in overhead power. The industry’s goal should be to drive that ratio as close to 1 as possible, Belady said.

“To get there, Microsoft and the industry must peel away the layers of infrastructure surrounding the servers. They are the main driver of a datacenter’s power consumption, which is huge. Some datacenters can drink as much as 50 megawatts – roughly five percent of what a nuclear power plant generates,” Belady said.

A few years ago, he performed an experiment to show it’s possible to run servers without the surrounding datacenter infrastructure (and achieving a PUE of 1.0). He and an engineering colleague put a rack of servers in a tent outside, just behind one of Microsoft’s datacenters. They ran perfectly for seven months. “That’s an example of making the datacenter infrastructure disappear,” he said.

“There are a billion PCs in use out there and none of them have these big infrastructure operations and tightly controlled environments behind them to run in your house or your local retail store or office,” Belady said. “You just plug them in and they run. We need to demonstrate that we don’t need all this stuff to run servers in the cloud services environment.”

Microsoft’s recent datacenter designs in Dublin, Ireland and Quincy, Washington build upon these innovations. They eliminate the chillers and refrigeration systems by using airside economization – a fancy way of essentially opening up the windows and letting in the fresh air. “The company’s Dublin facility maintains a PUE of 1.25, while also improving energy efficiency by approximately 50 percent and using only 1 percent of the annual water consumption of a traditional industry datacenter,” Belady said.

Microsoft’s new, fully modular datacenter in Quincy takes the best practices gained from research and development further and maintains a PUE of 1.15-1.2, while reducing the typical datacenter construction time of two years by half. Both facilities rely on 100 percent renewable power sources (hydropower in Quincy and wind power in Dublin) to decrease its carbon footprint as well, he added.

Microsoft and the industry aren’t just stopping at measuring and driving greater power efficiencies, Belady added. Under development are two new metrics called Carbon Usage Effectiveness (CUE), which looks at carbon emissions relative to IT power consumption, and Water Usage Effectiveness (WUE), which looks at water consumption relative to IT power consumption (both were co-developed by Belady).

Those metrics – PUE, CUE and WUE – will help datacenter operators leap ahead in reducing power, carbon emissions and water consumption. At Microsoft we actively are focusing on reducing all three in our datacenters,” said Belady

Data: The Next Form of Energy

Belady is already considering the next paradigm shift that could radically change the way the industry designs datacenters.

Microsoft’s Dublin datacenter uses free, outside air to cool servers and drive up efficiency.

“Data is really the next form of energy,” he said. “Instead of distributing power, we should think about distributing data. It’s far easier and more efficient to store data than power. I view data as just a more processed form of energy.”

“Today, a power plant generates power and distributes it through the power grid at high voltage with losses along the way; a datacenter consumes that power and essentially converts it to store and distribute data; and then fiber delivers the data to customers and businesses. But it is easier and more efficient to distribute energy (in the form of data) over fiber than electricity over copper wire,” he said. “In fact, year-over-year we find more ways to put more data through the same fiber. However, we can never figure out how to put more electrons through copper wire. So it only makes sense to combine power generation and datacenter capacity into ‘data plants,’ which will be substantially more efficient for distributing data.”

Belady thinks that what he calls “data plants” could be the next cloud infrastructure model of greener IT in the next five years. However, he points out that it will take the integration of everything from the computer chip all the way out to the utility plant before it gets there and will require rethinking and evolving how software, security and applications work together more effectively to support such an IT and industry evolution.

“In the future, it’s going to be the integration across the whole cloud ecosystem which will completely change the efficiency game and provide greater environmental sustainability,” Belady said. “Perhaps then, we can make the datacenter disappear.”

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