Inside a Microsoft Azure datacentre: Cloud giant invites users on server farm virtual tour

Software giant wants to give users a ‘tangible view’ of the inner workings of its public cloud through a newly launched virtual tour experience

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Microsoft is offering users the opportunity to take a virtual tour of a typical Azure datacentre so they can get a behind-the-scenes look at the technology powering the public cloud services they use.

Access to the tour is provided through a dedicated online microsite, and users can choose to wander the data halls of the Microsoft datacentre using a PC or mobile device, with virtual reality functionality to be added in due course. 

During a press conference to announce the launch of the virtual datacentre tour experience, Noelle Walsh, corporate vice-president of cloud operations and innovation at Microsoft, said the aim of the exercise was to give users a “more tangible view” of the inner workings of the public cloud.

“Our global cloud infrastructure comprises more than 60 datacentre regions launched and announced in 34 countries, and made up of over 200 datacentres globally, which is more than any other cloud provider,” said Walsh.

“To give you a sense of the scale and size of our datacentres, our West US 2 region in Washington state has over 20 buildings, each large enough to house two commercial aircraft.”

These datacentres make it possible for users of the cloud giant’s online business productivity suite, Microsoft 365, to generate more than 13 billion collaboration minutes each day, said Walsh, and ensuring its infrastructure is equipped to cope with such high usage rates is a priority.

“That’s why we’ve announced 14 new regions in the past year across Asia, Europe, Latin America and the US – which is more than we’ve ever announced in such a time span,” she added.

There is also potential for virtual tours to become the norm for Microsoft, as Walsh revealed that the tech giant typically hosted thousands of physical tours of its datacentres before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“A number of customers, partners and some members of the community have been asking for tours, and in the past, we have hosted thousands of tours in a year, but with the pandemic, we needed to stop all of those,” she said.

“My first priority was to ensure the safety of our employees in the datacentres, which in turn enables us to continue our cloud operations.”

It is also possible to show far more people round a datacentre when a tour is performed virtually, said Walsh, which is why the initiative will continue long after the pandemic is over.

“This experience opens the door to many more people globally,” she added. “And it alleviates the need for actual physical tours, so I would like this to be the platform going forward. I think it offers more information as well.”

Taking a tour of a Microsoft datacentre

The tour starts with an explanation and demonstration of the physical security measures that Microsoft uses to prevent unauthorised personnel from entering its datacentres, which includes biometrics and badge clearance, before progressing on to a tour of the facility’s server rooms.

Overseen by Mark Russinovich, technical fellow and chief technology officer at Microsoft Azure, this part of the tour gives participants an in-depth look at the server infrastructure that underpins its public cloud offerings, and the conditions they are running in.

“It feels like a comfortable summer day [with the temperature] between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Russinovich, “and you can even feel the light rush of air cooling our servers, combined with the melodic hum of servers and fans running. It’s like you might be in a low-speed wind tunnel.”

The company has more than four million servers in operation across its global datacentre estate, and each one has an average lifespan of four years, he said.

“We use AIOps [IT operations analytics] to monitor and predict failures in disks, fans, power supplies and other components, so we can repair and replace [equipment] as needed, so we avoid impacting customers.”

When these servers enter end of life, they are packaged off to a Microsoft circular centre to be recycled and re-used for parts, as a show of the company’s commitment to reducing the amount of datacentre e-waste that ends up in landfill.

The company has pledged to build a Microsoft circular centre at every new and existing major datacentre campus it operates, as part of its sustainability-focused “zero waste operations” pledge. This is in addition to the company’s overarching goal to have all its datacentres powered by renewable energy by 2025.

Brian Janous, general manager of energy at Microsoft, talked about the zero-waste operations goal elsewhere during the tour. “This means that by 2030 we will divert at least 90% of the solid waste headed to landfills and incineration from our campuses, and our datacentres will use 100% recyclable packaging and achieve at minimum 75% diversion of construction and demolition waste for all projects,” he said.

Back in the server room, Russinovich discussed how the number of cores, storage types and capacity of its compute units have changed over the years, as the nature of the workloads running in its datacentres has evolved.

“This evolution is necessary to meet the increasing demands of AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning and our customers’ most intensive workloads,” he said.

For the biggest, most memory-intensive workloads, the company has several sizeable server units it can deploy, said Russinovich – “servers we affectionately call Beast, Beast V2 or Son of a Beast, and Mega-Godzilla Beast, which has up to 448 cores, and up to 24 terabytes of RAM”.

He added: “The amount of memory and cores in these servers has grown so quickly over the past six to seven years, and I can only imagine six years from now we’ll be thinking these servers are small. But today they are some of the largest in the public cloud.”

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The tour also gives Microsoft customers some insights into the networking infrastructure that makes its public cloud services accessible to businesses and consumers across the globe. Russinovich shared stats about the capacity and expanse of its networks.

“Microsoft’s global network is connected by over 165,000 miles of subsea terrestrial and metro optical fibre, which is enough to circle our planet over six-and-a-half times,” he said. “We have over 185 network points of presence, or PoPs, which are placed within 25 milliseconds from 85% of the highest GDP-producing countries.

“Not only is the Microsoft global network one of the largest in the world in terms of physical size, but also the amount of traffic that flows through the network. Microsoft cloud workloads continue to put out impressive statistics, like moving 100 billion packets per second, and Microsoft Teams processes more than four billion meeting minutes every day. And we process more than 1.8 trillion Azure SQL query requests per day from our cloud.”

The tour concludes with a look at what is termed the datacentre “innovation room”, with Christian Belady, vice-president and distinguished engineer of Microsoft. This is where the firm trials technologies designed to improve the sustainability and operational performance of its server farms.

On this point, Belady pointed to the advances Microsoft has made recently with the test and development of hydrogen fuel cell technology as a green alternative to diesel backup generators.

This work saw it successfully run a row of datacentre servers for 48 consecutive hours using hydrogen fuel cells. “This sets the stage for having backup power generation with water as the only emission, and thus our keen interest,” said Belady.  

This phase of the tour also saw the company talk about the strides it is making to ensure that liquid immersion cooling becomes more commonplace within its wider datacentre portfolio, as it looks for more efficient ways to keep its servers cool as the workload demands on them increase.

“Microsoft is the first cloud provider that is running two-phase liquid immersion in a production environment, demonstrating its viability for broader use in our datacentres,” said Belady.

“One of the reasons for liquid cooling is to drive increasing density, and deal with escalating power of CPUs and GPUs, which are resulting from Moore’s Law and Dennard scaling reaching limitations.”

As time goes on, Walsh said the datacentre tour experience will evolve further as the technology inside its datacentres continues to be improved upon from a performance and sustainability perspective.

“This [virtual tour] experience we launched on 20 April will live on and will be updated as we have more to share, as we evolve our operations and innovations,” she said. “And as they become reality, we will move those experiences into one of the rooms in the tour.”

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