Redesigning Datacenters for an Advanced Energy Future

Sep 24, 2017   |   Christian Belady, General Manager & Sean James, Principal, Microsoft Cloud Infrastructure and Operations

Last fall, we shared our ambition to substantially simplify the datacenter. Or, as something that we have been saying for the past decade, “make the datacenter disappear.” In fact, almost exactly 10 years ago, we rolled out our concept called “Tent City,” where we demonstrated the idea of airside economization to greatly simplify and improve cooling efficiency. Since then, we have been doing that, in part, by increasing our use of renewable energy and using data insights to drive meaningful changes in the way we design, build, and operate our datacenters. But we’re not stopping there. We’re also investing in next-generation clean energy technologies that will help us grow our cloud responsibly, while also advancing a more sustainable grid for all.

Today, we’re excited to announce our partnership with McKinstry and Cummins to build the world’s first gas datacenter. In this pilot, racks are directly connected to natural gas pipes and fully powered by integrated fuel cells instead of traditional electrical gear. The Advanced Energy Lab is a 20-rack datacenter pilot located in Seattle. What makes this project so disruptive is how radically it simplifies the process of powering servers and how this could almost double the energy efficiency of datacenters—all while reducing costs and improving reliability.

This stark and simple design significantly reduces the amount of energy lost in power generation, transmission, and power conversion. Right now, datacenters are powered by the electrical grid, which flows from a power plant, through multiple substations and transmission lines, and then must be converted into the right voltage for a datacenter before we can use it. With fuel cells powered directly from the natural gas line, we cut out all those steps, and remove the energy losses that occur through this long transmission process as seen below.

With fewer pieces in the supply chain, there are fewer potential points of failure. That helps improve the reliability of our power supply and our datacenters. And, of course, with this simplification comes a reduction in cost. Eliminating electrical distribution, power conditioning, and backup infrastructure makes a datacenter easier and less expensive to build, operate and manage.

We started this journey with a desire to push the boundaries of what could be done with innovative energy technology in a datacenter environment. Most fuel cell implementations seen today are parallel to the grid, or an alternate source of grid power. But we opted to start from a blank sheet of paper and engineered from the server out, cutting out the unnecessary electrical equipment and even the electrical grid. Starting in 2013, we developed a partnership with the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California Irvine, where we first tested the idea of in-rack fuel cells. Then, in our Cheyenne pilot project in 2014, we demonstrated how fuel cells are not dependent on clean natural gas, but could work in a datacenter environment on a renewable fuel—biogas.

Why is the world’s leading cloud services company tinkering with the datacenters that power the cloud? Our commitment to innovation is part of Microsoft’s culture. This innovation is aligned with our strategy to minimize resource impact, use our resources more efficiently, and reduce embedded carbon and water in all our assets, while driving energy efficiency. That is how we “make the datacenter disappear,” all while still providing world-class Microsoft Cloud Services.

This Advanced Energy Lab brings together everything we have learned so far. It moves the fuel cell concept off the test bench to an actual datacenter, so we can learn in a real environment. To be sure, there’s still more work to do, like finishing the Lab and beginning testing and delivering results. But we’re excited about the potential of the Lab to change how others think about energy and datacenters – and then beyond Tech. This work could also pay dividends for other large consumers of energy, such as electric utilities, who are increasingly tasked with bringing more energy into cities, despite the challenge of limited space for more electrical lines. And we’re continuing to investigate ways to reuse all waste products – for example, the heat from fuel cells and servers could be used to power a cooling system, or to generate more power.

Microsoft is proud to lend its research, tools, and technology to building a more sustainable world and a thriving innovation economy. We encourage you to read more about the Advanced Energy Lab in today’s Seattle Times story from reporter Matt Day, and to follow us on Twitter to learn about Microsoft’s ongoing efforts to create a more responsible cloud for the future.

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