A week after opening its first “megadata center” in Europe, Microsoft took the wraps off another new $500 million data center, this time located in Chicago. The software giant says the new data center is required to meet its online and cloud computing plans and will serve as a test bed for new data center innovations, including a shipping container strategy.

In a blog detailing the innovations being tested in Chicago, Microsoft General Manager of Infrastructure Services Arne Josefsberg, says the facility offers a window into what may be the future of data centers. “One of the many reasons we decided to hold a grand opening of the Chicago facility is to share our best practices,” he says.

Josefsberg noted that most companies closely guard the technology at work inside their data centers, but Microsoft realizes it also needs to convince corporations that the cloud is a safe place to host their data and applications. “Very few companies can make the infrastructure investment that Microsoft has, so we think it is important to share what we’ve learned with the industry,” he added.

The lower floor of the data center very much resembles a giant distribution warehouse. Double-stacked shipping containers can be moved in, on what is described as air cushions, and essentially get plugged into the data center network. Each container is pre-outfitted with anywhere from 1,800 to 2,500 servers and can be installed within a matter of hours.

Microsoft says it worked with partners to develop a standard interface called a “CBlox” for the “plug and play” containers, which also includes the hook-ups for electricity and a water chilled cooling system. The facility has parking spaces for up to 56 of the double-stacked containers, but a second phase could double the capacity.

Josefsberg said a major advantage of the container strategy is that it enables Microsoft and its vendors to research new approaches around performance, power and cooling alternatives in an isolated manner. As concepts are proven, they can be more easily moved in and plugged into the data center.

“Containers provide further environmental benefits in that they don’t require additional packaging materials or external form factors for the thousands of servers that they house,” he said. “They also require less cabling and other equipment that all add up to unnecessary waste in traditional data center designs. Containers are also a very efficient way to quickly deploy capacity.”

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