Data-centers built out of sealed shipping containers filled with servers

Microsoft's new data-centres are comprised of entire sealed shipping containers that are slotted into racks and left to run until a critical mass of their processor units have failed, then are swapped out.
Starting with a Chicago-area facility due to open later this year, Microsoft will use an approach in which servers arrive at the data center in a sealed container, already networked together and ready to go. The container itself is then hooked up to power, networking, and air conditioning.

"The trucks back 'em in, rack 'em, and stack 'em," Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie told CNET News. And the containers remain sealed, Ozzie said. Once a certain number of servers in the container have failed, it will be pulled out and sent back to the manufacturer and a new container loaded in.

Microsoft's data centers growing by the truckload (via Beyond the Beyond)


  1. The idea is pretty old:
    “So why buy-up all that fiber, then?
    The probable answer lies in one of Google’s underground parking garages in Mountain View. There, in a secret area off-limits even to regular GoogleFolk, is a shipping container. But it isn’t just any shipping container. This shipping container is a prototype data center. Google hired a pair of very bright industrial designers to figure out how to cram the greatest number of CPUs, the most storage, memory and power support into a 20- or 40-foot box. We’re talking about 5000 Opteron processors and 3.5 petabytes of disk storage that can be dropped-off overnight by a tractor-trailer rig.”


  2. Once a certain number of servers in the container have failed, it will be pulled out and sent back to the manufacturer and a new container loaded in.

    With a Microsoft OS driving the hardware, that shouldn’t take long at ALL … I’m buying stock in whoever makes those shipping containers!

  3. Only partially joking, but isn’t this the start of the Matrix? Just stacks and stacks of processing units.

  4. Yeah. Why even unhook the tractor? Let the driver go for coffee, then come back and haul the trailer back to HQ.

  5. If they ran Linux instead of Windows, they could probably get by with half as many containers. I’d like to see them calculate how much energy is wasted due to software inefficiency. Google has big datacenters too, but I don’t think they’re going this crazy. Software is the difference.

  6. Microsoft ‘s use of containers allows it to jam a lot of servers into a data center (as many as 300,000 in Chicago), but the container “form factor” is also very energy efficient and allows Microsoft to cool the servers much more efficiently, supporting power loads of up to 1,300 watts per square foot.

    We’ll see a lot more of this. Microsoft’s adoption has moved containers from a fringe idea to a mainstream product. At the start of 2008, only Sun, Rackable and Verari had data center container products. Since Microsoft’s announcement that it would use 150 of them in Chicago, shipping container products have been announced by Dell, HP and IBM. What’s interesting is that Google holds the patent on the concept.

  7. Sun’s been selling/renting containerized processor banks for a while — I think under the name “Black Box”. Arrive on site, plug in power, plug in network connection, plug in chilled-water source, turn on.

    Microsoft’s originality ran out some time around the introduction of MS-DOS, I think.

  8. @technogeek

    MS-DOS was a copy of the CP/M operating system, with the slashes reversed.

    And Gates and company bought MS-DOS. They had no part in its development. The creator was shafted, of course.

  9. @technogeek

    MS-DOS was a copy of the CP/M operating system, with the slashes reversed.

    And Gates and company bought MS-DOS. They had no part in its development. The creator was shafted, of course.

  10. MSFT isn’t selling these things anyway, they’re buying them from someone (probably not Sun…)

    It’s slightly interesting that they’ve chosen to use them; also that they’re not opening the the containers to service them, just letting failed machines stay failed.

  11. will BB allow individuals to buy/lease their own server can at BB headquarters? (I mean the secret Cave deep under the Canadian Shield) I’m kind of tired of how long it takes to load my comment history when I want to check something.

  12. now that I think about it, walk by any large film studio and see cargo containers full of electrical studio lighting electronic controller/dimmer boxes.

  13. Given that the containers aren’t opened, I’d love to see the power/data/cooling connection interface.

  14. This struck me as a lame idea when Sun did it years ago. What’s so great about a mobile data center when you have the internet? I guess if you could save money on your data centers and computers it would be worthwhile, but I really doubt this setup is cheaper then a traditional data center and admin team.

  15. The idea is not a “mobile data centre”. The intent was never to allow you to move you data centre around. The point was to deliver an entire data centre in a box that you can plunk down in your parking lot, on top of your office building, or anywhere else that is convenient. It’s buying an entire data centre as a single line item without having to build out all the usual overhead associated with traditional data centres. Building massive data centres out of plug-n-play “compute shipping containers”.

  16. I can imagine a hacker figuring out how to spoof the heartbeat/diagnostic data for one or two containers, so that he has a free place to live. (And as long as there’s this great spoofing tech: lots of server resources for his/her own purposes.)

  17. How much do they cost? Can they run FSX with all the sliders et to max?


    Give it 10 years and the average mobile phone will have more processing power, where will it all end?

  18. phlavor “Given that the containers aren’t opened, I’d love to see the power/data/cooling connection interface.”
    That sounds like a pickup line at a Startrek convention.

  19. Haha! It certainly does.

    @9 – Oh come on be fair. The reason Vista runs like crap on anything with less than 2GB of ram is because of all those great features they’ve crammed in there that make your computer easier and better to use!

    I really wish people would stop bagging out the fantastic $260billion company that has no way of defending itself!

  20. I guess the main problem is how to manage a Windows server in a sealed enviroment. I mean if you are lucky you can access it via RDP. Unless of course there’s a problem with the boot process, then you won’t be able to access it at all.

  21. I still doubt this is cheaper then a traditional data center. And quite frankly, why plop down the computers anywhere when the company that manufactured these shipping crates could just rent you the cpu time? Seems like a lot cheaper to me.

  22. If the racks are water-cooled (which seems likely given how densely packed the containers are) there would be enormous energy savings vs. a conventional data center blowing cold air across a large room. (Some data centers are using water-cooled racks too, and good for them.)

    Flight of fancy: Now just imagine one of those large container ships running a few thousand of these on the high seas! Although bandwidth, power, and possibly piracy (real pirates, not copyright scofflaws) would be issues, so maybe not.

  23. Summary:

    1) I can’t believe it’s cheaper than a datacenter.

    That’s not the point. It may even be more expensive to start with. But it’s more compact. You can cram more servers into a given space. Plus you save time. How may hours does it take your admins to install 5000 servers in your datacenter vs How long does it take to plug in the container.

    2) When the computer fails, they don’t repair it? Isn’t that wasteful?

    That’s probably how the containers are designed. Non field-serviceable. When you pack 5000 computers into a 40×20 container, there’re no gaps for you to reach in and pull out that card from that computer in the middle. You have to dismantle and remove all the units in front of it.

    Besides, why would you want your admins to spend 50% of their time fiddling with hardware, when they could spend ALL of the their time fixing Windows?

  24. @#20: Prefab, modularized and transportable, to name just 3 features of the containerized system that aren’t available in traditional data centers.
    @#5: I think the key new feature here is “sealed”. That said, I think there might still be a patent-lawsuit brewing unless MS has already licensed the Google patent.
    @#32: A data haven! I wonder which maritime flag-of-convenience has the most libertarian IP laws…

    I wonder what happens when there’s a fire inside. Is there a halon feed in addition to the AC and the water cooling?

  25. I’d say that given the fact the containers are sealed a fire inside would not be too much of an issue. If something did catch alight and if they’re water cooled there wouldn’t be much in the way of oxygen for fuel, the fire would quickly go out due to lack of oxygen. Hell they might even remove all the oxygen beforehand and fill the containers with some kind of less flammable gas.

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