Microsoft invests massively in data centres for cloud computing
Software giant Microsoft is fighting rival Google for a place in the clouds. The company thinks that more and more software services will take over or replace the tasks currently being handled by Microsoft applications on business and home PCs. In the past two weeks alone, Microsoft has unveiled several key products it thinks will accelerate the process of transition to cloud computing, or software services delivered over the internet. With the Azure "cloud" operating system, described by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer as "a platform for the next technology revolution", companies can choose whether to run applications on their own computers or lease them from Microsoft as a web-based service. Windows Live is already being used as an online storage and archive system for photos, blogs and other web-based content, and the Exchange mail server, which has until now been offered as a software package for corporate clients, will soon be made available as a web service. Microsoft intends to do the same with its Office application suite.
The company is planning to invest heavily in its online infrastructure to meet the expected demand. Providers, including arch-rival Google as well as Adobe and Amazon, are now increasingly able to replace and augment the functionality of local PCs with web-based services running on large distributed server farms.
For Microsoft, this capability represents an attack on its traditional PC operating system and office application business. To counter this, it will set up 20 new data centres over the next 20 years at a cost of a billion dollars each. Debra Chrapaty, Microsoft's VP of global foundation services, speaking to the US media, said "We're going to reinvent the infrastructure of our industry,". It took Chrapaty's team two years to set up Microsoft's first cloud data centre, which opened in Washington State last year. Because of the high energy requirement, the server farm was purposely located close to a new hydroelectric power station.
It took the team just nine months to build the next datacentre in San Antonio, Texas. One of the reasons for their success is the modular design of the new blocks of servers. Up to 2,500 servers are installed in a freight container at the factory and fitted with mains power and cooling infrastructure. There is no need to unpack computers from cardboard boxes on site: these mini-datacentres are driven into giant hangar-like buildings, the whole container connected up, and then they can become operational as soon as the software has been installed. It takes two days to activate a new container. There is room in the 70,000 square metre datacentre in San Antonio for over 220 containers – a theoretical capacity of half a million servers. The architecture saves energy, time and staff workload. According to Microsoft's own statements, these datacentres will need half the staff of previous centres and the software company expects to cut its energy budget by a third. Hardware manufacturers like Sun and Rackable Systems have proposed similar concepts before. David Capuccio, an analyst with Gartner, sees Microsoft's version as being more robust as well as more likely to offer worthwhile power savings.
While Google plans its data centres in-house under strictest secrecy – even going as far as building its own servers – Microsoft is cooperating closely with companies such as Dell, HP and Intel. Google gives no indication – at least to the outside world – that it is impressed with Microsoft's activities. "We have been building a cloud infrastructure for a number of years," said the search engine company, "and we have gained a substantial lead in the process."