Energy: The Datacenter’s Change Catalyst

Posted by Global Foundation Services in
Data Centers, Efficiency and Sustainability, Reliability, Road Map

091913-1I have the great fortune of working at the nexus of energy and IT, two industries that are in the midst of major disruptions. The forces at work in both of these industries have led Microsoft to reevaluate the requirements to power our massive cloud-scale infrastructure over the next decade. Not only will we have to respond to the enormous growth in the demand for data and IT resources to support it, we also have to contend with the changing regulatory, political, and technological landscape of the energy industry.

We are excited about the positive evolution these disruptions are enabling and believe that innovation in the energy sector must be a catalyst for significant advancements in data center design and operations. Microsoft continues to be committed to partnering with the energy sector and investing in clean, reliable sources of energy to power our cloud-scale infrastructure.

Since opening our first data center in 1989, Microsoft has invested over $15 billion to build one of the world's largest cloud infrastructures. An infrastructure of this scale requires a significant investment in energy. As a result, we have been deeply interested in investing in and partnering with others in the industry to develop technologies that will deliver dramatic sustainability and efficiency improvements to our infrastructure that can then be passed on to help our customers' ROI and to the industry as best practices. These proactive investments help to drive reductions in energy consumption, carbon emissions, and costs. Our focus is not solely on the technology itself but on the broader systems where these technologies will reside - from the software architecture to the energy sources that are the raw material powering the cloud.

Reorganize the World

Currently, I'm reading a fascinating biography of Samuel Insull, an industrialist from the turn of the last century who was the visionary behind the modern electric utility. A protégé of Thomas Edison, Insull worked under the inventor during the development of the incandescent light bulb. Insull was present at the creation of the technology that would radically alter the next century, but without his contributions to the creation of the modern electric grid, widespread adoption of electrification would have been slowed considerably.

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Samuel Insull,
1859-1938

Insull realized that small, inefficient power plants that were commonplace at the turn of the century could never offer the radical transformation that could be achieved with an expansive grid connected to larger plants. In 1902, Insull hired General Electric (GE) to build a 5,000 kW power plant; the largest plant GE had built prior was only 600 kW. Upon commissioning, Insull ordered two more units and within a decade the size of generators grew to 120,000 kW.

I am compelled by Insull's story for both the obvious parallels to the growth of centralized cloud computing and its lesson in the evolution of disruptive technology. It was not enough to introduce a new technology into the world. Insull also helped to reorganize the world to maximize the value of the new technology.

At Microsoft, we are working with leading research institutions and energy companies to identify and develop new energy technologies. We realize, however, that it is not enough to be present at the creation. Inspired by Insull's vision, I am also inspired to focus on how we can reengineer our own systems to maximize the disruptive potential of these new technologies. One example of this is our Data Plant project in Cheyenne, Wyoming where we're using biogas from a wastewater treatment facility to power a small containerized data center.   

The availability of clean, reliable energy is critical to delivering on the promise of the cloud as well as on the growth of modern economies globally. As Bill Gates tweeted this summer: "If I had to pick one thing to make cheaper and reduce poverty, it would be energy." We cannot afford marginal improvements in cost, efficiency, and emissions. We need investments in new technologies, combined with industries that recognize that a true disruption requires more than just improvements in technology.

A true disruption in the energy sector will happen when businesses and consumers understand their energy consumption within a broader system, beginning with the raw energy source through the generation, distribution, utilization, and waste of that energy.

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In a traditional data center design, only 1% of the energy that is supplied to a power plant is ultimately delivered to the consumer in the form of useful work (see graph above). While Microsoft has worked to dramatically improve the downstream losses (in the data center and server) through improvements in Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) and virtualization, most of the initial energy is lost before an electron even reaches a data center. This creates a huge opportunity to innovate up the supply chain through the integration and development of new energy technology. Microsoft is applying this sort of systems-based approach to help deliver a revolution in the energy and IT sectors in the years ahead and we look forward to sharing more about our work as it progresses.   

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