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Inside Microsoft's New 'Purpose-Built' Data Lab

What happens when you remove engineers from their test servers? For starters, you get some nervous engineers. But eventually, you can also greatly expand your computing capability and speed up the research process.

That, at least, is the hope that lies behind Microsoft's new 57,000 square foot Redmond Ridge 1 computing facility, which opened in July and which I toured yesterday with a small group of reporters and Microsoft executives. (Full disclosure: Microsoft paid for my plane ticket to attend a daylong tour of the corporate campus and meet with other teams at the company.)

The purpose behind the "purpose-built" element of the facility is to begin migrating Microsoft developers to a fully remote model of server management, while at the same time expanding and speeding up the computing ability of development teams.

Redmond Ridge will also give Microsoft the ability to put their virtualization and remote management tools to the test. Bill Laing, Microsoft's Corporate Vice President of the Windows Server and Solutions Division and one of the first groups to move its servers to the lab, said that the move will force them to improve their tools by putting them to work in developing and refining other Microsoft products.

Laing and Tony Scott, Microsoft's CIO, both expressed their excitement about the speed that having potentially hundreds of thousands of virtual servers ready at hand will bring to their R&D processes.

"It's decoupled the physical infrastructure from what we want to do," Laing said.

Crossing the Cultural Chasm

That decoupling is part of a larger paradigm shift now underway with the launch of the Redmond Ridge facility that Microsoft execs repeatedly mentioned yesterday.

Laing described his role in helping to launch the facility as an agent of change; by spurring this migration, they're challenging people to make a shift in behavior and a shift in work culture.

"Crossing the chasm of behavior and culture is much harder than crossing the chasm of technology," said Rob Bernard, Microsoft's chief environmental strategist. "Once you start to change people's behavior and intent, then you can unlock real innovation."

Currently, development teams on Microsoft's Redmond campus generally have their own server labs, usually located on their floor or in their building. The teams "own" these servers and are generally responsible for purchasing, maintaining and paying for the energy these machines use.

A row of server racks in one pod of the Redmond Ridge facility. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

But now the company is shifting to a remote and highly virtualized environment for these projects; when it's done, the 34,000 square feet of computing floor space will be able to hold about 35,000 physical servers. Given that each of those machines could get anywhere from 5 to 20 virtual instances, the number of servers ready at hand is staggering.

Moving the servers to Redmond Ridge has multiple benefits, from both technological and environmental standpoints. Having that many servers tied together in one system will allow any development team to have access to any number of those servers.

Tony Scott offered the example of a team requesting 2,000 servers for 24 hours, an easy feat in this virtual environment, but one that would take expontentially longer to procure physical servers.

It's Not a Data Center, but It's Plenty Green

The new lab -- no one will call it a data center, partly because it's not built to "five nines" of availability and redundancy, and in part because it's not a customer-facing facility like one that would power Hotmail or Bing -- opened two months ago and is just starting to fill with racks and servers. The facility should be complete in April 2010.

In addition to the technological benefits of syncing up all these physical and virtual servers, the shift to Redmond Ridge offers significant environmental benefits.

With an estimated Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) ratio of 1.24, running these servers in the research lab will use about 30 percent less energy than running them on campus.

PUE is a measure of how much energy entering a computing facility is used for computing, as compared to how much is applied to HVAC, lighting, and other non-computing needs. A ratio of 1.0 means that every watt entering the facility goes right to computing, and 1.24 puts Redmond Ridge among the most efficient facilities out there.

The lab, which was built to LEED Silver standards, is a highly efficient facility. It was constructed to hold 48 standalone "pods" of servers, with each pod capable of holding 1,200 servers. Each pod includes its own uninterruptible power supply (UPS), power distribution unit (PDU) and dedicated rooftop air handler.
The cold aisles of the pods are kept around 75 degrees, and the hot aisles usually run around 90 degrees. The facility was designed to use outside air for cooling, with evaporative coolers that will cool the air on those rare days that the temperature rises above 75 degrees -- 95 percent of the time, the lab's managers expect to be able to use outside air for free cooling.

The poured concrete floor of the lab also allows for greater density of computing power than a typical raised-floor facility; at Redmond Ridge, Microsoft is able to get 15 kilowatts of servers on a rack, whereas on campus that number maxes out at 3 kilowatts.

Migrating R&D servers into the Redmond Ridge facility will save not just 30 percent of the energy used, but will cut the company's carbon dioxide emissions by 12,000 tons every year, part of Microsoft's strategy to lower its company-wide carbon footprint by 30 percent by 2012.

"[Moving all of Microsoft's servers to Redmond Ridge] also gives us much more control over our machines from an environmental standpoint," said Rob Bernard. "[Servers] can be EPEAT Gold, Energy Star 5.0 compliant, and we can have a process in place for end of life management."

To that end, Bernard announced yesterday Microsoft's new green IT procurement policy: Going forward, all of Microsoft's hardware purchases must be both EPEAT Gold certified and Energy Star 5.0 compliant.

Watch this space for more from my daylong tour of Microsoft's campus and facilities in the coming days. And for more on Microsoft's green IT goals, visit

An artist's rendering of the Redmond Ridge facility; at the top of the roof are the 48 air handling and cooling units. Image courtesy of Microsoft.
Redmond render

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