A peek inside Microsoft's new data center reveals its shipping container approach, which has allowed it to reach a PUE of 1.22 -- almost as good as Google.  (Source: Microsoft)
Google's latest bravado can only be matched by the king of self-promotion, Microsoft

Microsoft is one of the world's largest companies and unsurprisingly that's thanks in part of a healthy level of self-promotion.  Microsoft's self-image is certainly a rosy one that at times as produced almost comical comments, such as when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer welcomed Google's new Android OS to "Microsoft's world", apparently referring to the phone OS market, despite the fact the Symbian had vastly more market share.

So when Google gave an unprecedented inside peek inside its efforts to green its servers and offered up some hard numbers in the form of Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) metrics, Microsoft couldn't resist the chance to try one-up its competitor with its own server efforts.

The software and hardware giant says it is installing new servers contained within 40-foot shipping containers at its Chicago data center.  It says its new containers are ultra-efficient, sporting a PUE of 1.22, according to Microsoft’s Mike Manos.  This comes close to Google's average PUE of 1.21 at its six company-built data centers, which it was recently bragging about. 

The Northlake, Illinois data center has just completed its first phase of construction in what will be a $550M USD project yielding a 500,000 square-foot facility.  Mr. Manos added, "The facility is already simply amazing and it’s a wonder to behold.  The joke we use internally is that this is not your mother’s data center.  You get that impression from the first moment you step into the ‘hangar bay’ on the first floor. The hangar’s first floor will house the container deployments and I can assure you it is like no data center you have ever seen.  It’s one more step to the industrialization of the IT world, or at least the cloud-scale operations space."

Each 40-foot CBlox container can house 2,500 servers, a density 10 times that of a normal data center.  The first floor alone is intended to house 150 to 220 containers, meaning that the first floor alone could hold 375,000 and 550,000 servers.  Google has not yet announced figures on the number of servers in its data centers, but it is expected to be perhaps even greater.

Mr. Manos bragged of the center's efficiency, stating, "Now I want to be careful here as the reporting of efficiency numbers can be a dangerous exercise in the blogosphere.  But our testing shows that our containers in Chicago can deliver an average PUE of 1.22 with an AVERAGE ANNUAL PEAK PUE of 1.36. I break these two numbers out separately because there is still some debate (at least in the circles I travel in) on which of these metrics is more meaningful.  Regardless of your position on which is more meaningful, you have to admit those numbers are pretty darn compelling."

While Microsoft's numbers may be very impressive, and well ahead of much of the industry, that sports PUE's of around 2.5, they still fall short of Google's.  PUE is a measure of the ratio of watts into the IT infrastructure versus watts out to power IT components -- a PUE of 1 is ideal, but considered non-attainable.  Google has reported that it has one data center with an average PUE of 1.13.  Google has indicated that its data centers may be built using containers as well.

Mr. Manos states, "This new approach is definitely a change in how facilities have traditionally been developed, and as a result many people in our industry are intimidated by it.  But they shouldn’t be. Data centers have not changed in fundamental design for decades.  Sometimes change is good. The exposure to any new idea is always met with resistance, but with a little education things change over time."

Unfortunately, Microsoft still appears a step behind as Google owns the patent on portable container data centers.  Microsoft is likely licensing the patent or is in for a legal headache.  Google received the patent from the USPTO after filing 12-3-2003, just days after it allegedly rejected a pitch for the same idea to Larry Page by Robert X. Cringely, who offers supporting documents that he came up with idea.  Nonetheless, Google now holds the patent on the technology that is driving it and its competitor Microsoft's datacenters.

"Google fired a shot heard 'round the world, and now a second American company has answered the call to defend the rights of the Chinese people." -- Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.)

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