How green is your cloud, Microsoft?

Schools and universities sometimes ask me to tell them all about how moving onto our cloud offerings like Office 365, Live@edu, Azure, Dynamics CRM Online, and so on, can support their green initiatives.  This is a story I am always excited to tell as I can get my geek on with topics including virtualiztion, IT-PACs, xUE metrics, and of course the latest and greatest software and services from Microsoft!

Microsoft runs our public cloud services out of a collection of inter-connected datacenters that are dispersed around the world, including several locations in the US.  The group within our company that runs these datacenters is called Microsoft Global Foundation Services.  There is an excellent datacenter video tour you can watch that is a little mind-blowing 🙂


GFS has a significant environmental focus, their mission is to "lead the datacenter industry in energy efficiency, reducing waste, and using recycled resources wherever possible".  Our GFS team recently did a study in partnership with Accenture where we examined the environment benefits of moving to the cloud. We found that depending on the size of the deployment, customers could reduce energy use and carbon emissions by between 30% and 90% when comparing cloud services with on-premises equivalents.  Why is this?  The study identified 4 areas:

  • Dynamic provisioning – customers provision only what they need, they do not have to worry about, or pay for excess capacity.
  • Multi-tenancy – this is the ability to share applications between many customers.  In Live@edu, for example, we have many millions of faculty, staff and student users sharing the same hardware and application instances.  Logically we securely separate them into separate domains, but physically, they co-exist.
  • Maintain higher utilization – an individual school will have unique peak utilization periods during the day, if the institution is running infrastructure to support this on-premises, there will be times in the day when utilization is very low.  In moving to the cloud, we can balance different customers’ peak periods so that we maintain a much higher average.
  • Cutting edge datacenter design – Microsoft is an industry leader in this area, and our investments are cutting edge with respect to how we think holistically about the datacenter as the server, and how we manage it.  A simple example of this would be cooling with fans.  On a typical CPU, it would have a dedicated fan, in our datacenter building we would have additional fans to cool the rooms the servers are in.  If we think about the datacenter as a server, you might come to the conclusion that you could remove all of those individual CPU fans, and through clever air-flow design, deploy fans that service multiple CPUs.  In this case, server cost would come down, and infrastructure costs would go up, but overall, total costs would come down.  Tangible savings that we can pass onto our schools and colleges.

Datacenters these days are often measured in Megawatts.  When customers hear this for the first time, they begin to get an idea for the magnitude of the wizard behind the curtain. Customers that have a green agenda want to know how we power the magic efficiently; we think very broadly here.  Our datacenter in Qunicy, WA, is on the shores of the Columbia River and naturally is 100% powered 100% hydroelectricity.  An award winning datacenter that we built in Dublin, Ireland uses a free air cooling cooling system and purchases wind generated power from a local energy provider.

We don't just stop at power... If you ask someone to think about what a datacenter looks like, they typically think of huge concrete building with a bunch of servers in racks inside it.  Microsoft asked the question, do servers really need a building?  Concrete is not only expensive, it is also hard on the environment… it takes about a ton of carbon to make a ton of concrete.  To that end, our latest generation of datacenters are made up from what are essentially shipping containers of Pre-Assembled Components (IT-PACs) and these can reside outdoors with minimal weather protection.  IT-PACs come pre-assembled from our vendors, we drop it in, hook it up with network and water, provision it, and we are off the races.  Further than that, we strive to have these IT-PACs produced by our suppliers using local recyclable components, for example steel or aluminum.

A key metric that Microsoft tracks is PUE, or Power Usage Effectiveness.  PUE determines the energy efficiency of a data center by dividing the amount of power entering a data center by the power used to run the computer infrastructure within it.  For example, if you have 2 WATTS coming into a datacenter, and 1 of those WATTS is used to power servers, then PUE is 2.  We strive to lower this year over year, and we even incentivize our datacenter managers on this.  Right now, with our 4th generation datacenters, we hope to be able to get into the 1.05 to 1.2PUE range; 1PUE is the theoretical minimum.

So what does the magic of Microsoft's software bring to the mix?  We use a wide range of our own technologies to drive efficiencies.  Windows Server offers advanced optics into resource utilization that can be monitored by our System Center product family, which in turn can be used to control how we most efficiently balance workloads and applications.  We also make extensive use of our virtualization solutions to reduce power consumption and floor space requirements dramatically.  These are all technologies that our customers can also get great benefit from on their own private clouds.

So all in all, I hope you agree we have a compelling approach and ever-evolving roadmap that gives our education customers what they need.  I would be happy to answer any questions.


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