Microsoft tells cloud customers about data center energy efficiency

Scott Guthrie, executive vice president of cloud and enterprise at Microsoft Corp., speaks during the Microsoft Developers Build Conference in Seattle, Washington, U.S., on Monday, May 7, 2018.

Grant Hindsley | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Microsoft plans to tell its customers more about the energy use of the data centers it uses to host Azure public cloud services. With that information, customers can figure out where to deploy their applications in the most efficient possible way.

The practice dovetails with the plan Microsoft unveiled last year to remove more carbon than it emits by 2030. It could also help the company stand out to prospective customers in its bid to become larger in the growing cloud-computing market, where Amazon leads.

Generally, companies that operate these large-scale computing facilities have been secretive about efficiency. Large technology companies spend billions building them each year, and efficiency when running them can be a competitive advantage.

But this year, Microsoft began sharing info about power usage effectiveness for Azure data center “regions” — groups of data centers located near each other — to some customers under nondisclosure agreements, said Noelle Walsh, corporate vice president for the company’s Cloud Operations and Innovation group.

“We will be increasingly transparent with some of those numbers,” Walsh said. Itemizing data center by data center might be too granular, but working by region is fine, Walsh said.

Walsh said the company won’t share the information too openly, for fear that it might backfire.

“If everybody was to pick and choose, the overall optimum might not be the most green solution,” Walsh said.

In some parts of the world, such as Dublin and Seattle, it’s possible to air cool data centers, while in warmer locations, keeping the computing infrastructure cool might require the use of chillers or other equipment, Walsh said.

“Our European customers are asking for a lot more insights into the details as to how we run our data centers,” she said.

She said hyperscale data centers are 98% more efficient than on-premises data centers that companies, governments and schools operate for themselves. Last year Microsoft introduced a Sustainability Calculator that customers can use to track the greenhouse gas emissions arising from their use of Azure.

There are ways to lower emissions at existing data centers through technology. Microsoft has tested liquid cooling for servers, and the company plans to try using batteries as an alternative to diesel generators — one source of emissions — to deliver backup energy, Walsh said.

The idea of learning more about efficiency across data regions is appealing to Francesco Tinto, chief information officer of Walgreens Boots Alliance, which uses Azure.

“Even in our network, we are making other partnerships with other vendors in a way that we can decrease our carbon footprint, usage and so on. So absolutely, it’s top of mind for us,” he said.

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