Microsoft’s quest for greater efficiency in the cloud

I underlined in several of my previous posts that cloud computing brings great benefits such as scalability and increased energy efficiency, but what about the next phase? As data centers grow in capacity and the rate of adoption increases, we need also to look to the future.

This is exactly what my colleague, Christian Belady has spent much of his career doing: developing data centers. In 2010, he was recognised in the industry as one of the “Five People Who Changed the Datacenter”.

Christian 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.

As Microsoft’s general manager of Datacenter Advanced Development, he currently focuses on shrinking the huge amount of infrastructure still needed to run a datacenter. Christian estimates that 50% 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,” Christian said. “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,”.

Making the datacenter disappear is perhaps the logical end to a journey Christian 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 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. 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. Microsoft and the industry aren’t just stopping at measuring and driving greater power efficiencies, Christian 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 Christian).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 Christian.

Christian is already considering the next paradigm shift that could radically change the way the industry designs datacenters. “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.” Christian 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,” Christian said. “Perhaps then, we can make the datacenter disappear.”

This article was adapted from Microsoft’s Press site. Click here to read his full interview.

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