Microsoft Research lab in Cambridge uses datacentre tools to improve efficiency

case study

Microsoft Research lab in Cambridge uses datacentre tools to improve efficiency

Archana Venkatraman

More than 130 researchers use the Microsoft Research lab in Cambridge to develop innovative computational approaches and technologies that is used in the company’s popular products, such as Bing and Kinect for Xbox 360

For the IT team, the operational efficiency and performance of the lab’s datacentre are crucial in helping the researchers solve tough computing problems.

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The IT team’s long-term objective was to extend researchers’ access to experimental equipment while enhancing overall datacentre management and deployment efforts. But it also had an immediate datacentre challenge -- to move its lab to a new building.

One of its main concerns with the move was being able to plan the datacentre layout and placement of racks and equipment in a way that eliminated hot spots and optimised power consumption.

“When it comes to building a datacentre or placing equipment in racks, people just think in terms of space,” says Andy Slowey, research support specialist at Microsoft Research Cambridge lab.

“Since today’s equipment is so dense in terms of thermal outputs and power requirements, you can’t think just space. You have to think energy and heat too,” he says.

The challenge of datacentre planning

But for the IT team, considering all three datacentre parameters at the same time was challenging, especially since many datacentre planning tools give just a straight rack design that only tells a third of the story, according to Slowey.

The team then opted for the Avocent Data Center Planner product from the technology company Emerson Network Power because it wanted a full picture of the datacentre, so that it can avoid energy issues from day one in its new datacentre.

Using the software, the IT team at Microsoft Research Cambridge could drop any piece of equipment into its datacentre design plan to see what it looks like all at once from the space, heat and power point of view.

The team could also assess if a particular layout will put them over budget on power or create hot spots.

The tool also provides an asset roll-up feature that takes into account assets within an asset. So, if the IT team added an additional disk to a blade chassis or a card to a server, they will know how much more power it will draw and the heat it will generate, Slowey says.

Business benefits of using datacentre planning tool

“The planning software gave us clear instructions on what needs to be done for our move,” says Slowey. “It gave us an idiot-proof guide and picture of what the rack is supposed to look like when it’s done.”

Another big advantage was that the IT team could dramatically cut the time spent managing the datacentre infrastructure’s energy efficiency. It also helped the team eliminate hot spots, minimise power consumption and optimise space within the datacentre.

But the IT team’s decision to use Avocent Data Center Planner was a strategic one. It had previously used other products from the same company – Avocent DSView management software and Avocent DSR appliance – and wanted a datacentre planning tool that would work seamlessly with the datacentre management tools.

The lab’s IT team used the management software to have a secure, centralised management of all its datacentre IT assets. 

Meanwhile, the DSR appliance helped the team free up about two racks worth of equipment space within the datacentre.

Researchers not chained to the physical lab anymore

The management software enabled the IT to meet its researchers demands easily and gave them the freedom to access any datacentre resource from any location at any time.

“Some of the equipment we have in the lab is really experimental. It might be just a circuit board with a keyboard and a mouse plugged into it sitting on a shelf in a rack, which meant researchers could only work while they were in the lab,” says Slowey.

Following the installation of the management software, the researchers can now work from anywhere they please, he adds.

The IT team too can manage the datacentre infrastructure remotely. 

“If I get an alert at 2am, I don’t need to drive down to the lab to toggle that particular device. I can get remote access to the console from the corporate network — independent of the main network that the system might be on — and take care of it,” he says.

According to Slowey, selecting the datacentre planning and management tools that work seamlessly was crucial in improving the lab’s datacentre infrastructure management (DCIM) efforts today, while opening the door to even greater capabilities in the future.

“The tools as a whole give us a lot more confidence in the consistency and quality of the planning, installation and administration of our datacentre,” Slowey says. “Together, the solutions make it easy for us to answer the big ‘what-if’ questions, enabling us to make the right decisions, save time and prevent downtime.”

The IT team is now looking to further evolve its DCIM capabilities with Emerson Trellis platform that will pull everything together into one integrated platform giving the team greater levels of datacentre insight, control and automation.


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