A walk ‘inside’ the cloud – Microsoft’s Dublin data centre

2 Apr 2013

Microsoft's data centre in Dublin

In 1985, long before ownership of personal computers was commonplace, a young American software company called Microsoft set up a manufacturing operation in Dublin, where workers would pack little blue plastic disks and manuals into cardboard boxes and they would be shipped off around the world to be sold in computer shops.

A decade later, when the PC revolution raged, some of those factory workers would become (paper) millionaires, thanks to their shares in what at that point was one of the world’s most valuable companies.

In 2013, a very different Microsoft now faces ruthless competition from both Apple and Google upon a technology landscape where consumers get their software by tapping a touchscreen on a tablet or smartphone and live their online lives in what we now call the cloud; an interconnected network of servers that sit inside Fort Knox-like vaults called data centres.

People no longer buy software in boxes, they buy apps. Microsoft’s once steely grip on the computing world is under pressure from Apple, which has transformed the notion of computing thanks to its iPad and iPhone, and from Google, which has a 70.1pc share of the smartphone market worldwide through Android (IDC) and dominates the internet search business.

Microsoft builds Windows

Microsoft is fighting back on a number of fronts with its latest computer operating system Windows 8, which is designed to run on PCs and tablets, its own smartphone operating system Windows Phone 8, its dominance in the business software and server markets and its strength in the video gaming world in terms of Xbox.

Delivering software via the internet cloud is the lynchpin of the software giant’s battle for survival.

You could argue that the software giant is now taking a similar bet on Dublin as it did in 1985 with a US$630m state-of-the-art data centre on the west side of the city that is home to some 200 core Microsoft products, from Office 365 to its search platform, Bing, its cloud development platform Azure, as well as stalwart products like Exchange, SharePoint and Lync.

David Gauthier

David Gauthier, director of Data Centre Architecture and Design Strategy at Microsoft

“It’s been a good partnership,” said David Gauthier, the young American who, as director of Data Centre Architecture and Design Strategy at Microsoft, designed the US$640m data centre, as well as 15 other data centres strewn across the US and the rest of the planet.

Microsoft built the data centre at Grange Castle near Clondalkin in 2009 as part of an initial US$500m investment on a 319,000 sq-foot site. This was followed up in December last year by a further investment of US$130m requiring an additional 144,000 sq feet of construction. The data centre employs between 50 and 70 people, who form part of Microsoft’s 1,200 and 700 contract workforce in Ireland.

Across Dublin there are as many as 30 giant data centres that are the engine rooms of global e-commerce and are part of the fabric of the cloud of computing resources that the world’s 2bn internet users (and growing) will depend upon. They belong to players like Amazon, Yahoo!, Vodafone and many other technology brands.

In the Clondalkin district, where Microsoft maintains its monster data centre, rival Google has invested US$75m in a new energy-efficient data centre on 11 acres of land. Another major data centre giant, Digital Realty Trust, has acquired a 10-acre site to build a 193,000 sq-foot data centre, while down the road from that TelecityGroup, which acquired Irish data centre firm Data Electronics two years ago for US$100m, has another major data centre facility.

According to Gauthier, a key reason for the data centres locating in the area is Ireland’s ambient climate, where cool winds flowing east from Ireland’s midlands are used to cool down piping hot servers through which billions of email messages, photos, financial transactions, videos and social media updates flit through Ireland and out to the world a minute.

Inside a data centre

Getting into the highly secure data centre is quite difficult as you wait for various electronic gates to allow you enter. Once inside the server vaults, you can feel the heat and hear the noise of thousands of servers in action. Every flash of light on each box has meaning and it’s incredible to think that each blink represents another human being possibly on the other side of the planet or just down the street living their lives online.

Gauthier showed me massive shipping bays where lorries deposit banks of computer servers loaded inside shipping containers which are then rolled into place like Lego to accommodate increased computing demand from the software giant’s customers around the world.

On the roof of the giant data centre, as something halfway between a blizzard and a rain shower raged, he showed me massive air handling units the size of houses that looked more like spaceships and which were sucking in the air from the west to cool the entire data centre. No cooling towers are used, just plain old Irish wind.

“We operate the facility 24 x 7, 365 days of the year – and it shares this workload between other data centres around the world.

“The way it works is some of these data centres will shift workloads around the globe as the world wakes up, while there are other workloads that are regionally specific. For example, customers using Office 365 may stipulate that the data is not going to be replicated in the US.”

Energy efficient data centre

Seattle native Gauthier is the designer of Microsoft’s Generation 4 modular data centre architecture, where energy efficiency is critical. Ireland was the proof-point that data centres can be cooled by wind and typically this generation of data centre consumes less than 1pc of the water consumed by traditional data centres. The Dublin data centre has a power usage effectiveness rate (PUE) of 1.17.

Gauthier says that when the data centre, which is 100pc cooled by the wind, was built in 2009 it was very much an experiment. “We had safeguards built in, just in case, but when we realised we weren’t using them we just disconnected them and we just used the space to put in more servers. The temperature range outside the facility can be on average anything between 10°C to 30°C, and we have a special algorithm to help us get the best performance to cool the facility.

“The air is drawn in, the servers heat it up and it gets blown out an exhaust at between 10° and 20°C. In the winter time we use a little bit of the exhaust heat to bring the temperature up inside.”

Gauthier points out that he spends his time working between a cohort of architects and electrical and mechanical engineers on one side and the software chiefs of Microsoft on the other.

“Across the 200 or more different services there are at least 200 different business models for how things operate and the key thing is we have to do this in a highly reliable fashion.

“It represents the shift from the days that software was packaged in a box to now, when people expect to have it on their devices in seconds. The first data centre that Microsoft operated for the internet was in Ireland a decade ago. (It) was for the fulfilment of online software distribution, so it’s been a great journey so far.”

Data centre investment

According to Gauthier, Microsoft has invested €15bn so far in data centre infrastructure worldwide over the past 20 years. “The future is no longer in boxed products, it’s now about enabling new revenue streams and new technologies and keeping people productive and ensuring they get the information they need wherever they are.”

I ask Gauthier how far ahead the software giant has planned for the future in terms of building out the West Dublin data centre to accommodate the world’s next 1bn computer and smartphone users.

“We’ve invested US$630m in the Irish facility and that doesn’t include the amount we are spending on running costs and the servers we are constantly adding in and activating. The growth of the business has gone hockey-stick lately and we’re looking at how we can do more and more with the infrastructure we have while bringing on new capacity and new sites.

“In this site we planned for that by giving extra space in each computer room to drive different technologies that consume less power, so we’re constantly trying to squeeze the most out of what we have.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it and so we have teams of electrical and mechanical engineers and software engineers working together to build systems that are balancing the right performance in the data centre with what the end-user experience looks like on a PC or smartphone.”

Speaking of end-users, Microsoft Ireland director Martin Cullen explains that in terms of Irish businesses making the leap onto the cloud, that tipping point was surpassed in July of last year.

“Up until that point businesses were sceptical and were about six or nine months behind the norm. But the economic challenges of business in Ireland has helped drive cloud computing adoption, from SMEs up to large organisations.

“For SMEs in Ireland, in particular, lack of funding from the banks to buy new computer systems has been a large catalyst for adopting cloud services as they move to an opex model for getting computing services and away from the traditional capex model,” Cullen said.

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 31 March

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years