Microsoft taps Dell to build Azure cloud
Round Rock containerized?
Cloud computing means a lot of things to a lot of people these days, but if this catch-phrase-of-the-moment has one goal, it's to make huge numbers of independent servers and related storage to support millions of users in such a way that they neither know nor care about how the underlying iron and its software stack is accomplishing this.
But rest assured, there are plenty of people who care about the underlying hardware, including all the familiar brand names in the server racket as well as a few upstarts who have been trying to play the density game in the data center for several years.
One of the companies that cares about cloud computing, of course, is Dell, which is thrilled to have been picked to be the sole provider of the hardware infrastructure and related data center design services for Microsoft's Azure Services Platform, an alternative to the EC2 cloud computing effort created by Amazon that Microsoft announced this week at its Professional Developer Conference. Azure is a compute and storage cloud for running Windows applications created using Visual Basic and C# and using a modified version of SQL Server for data storage.
To build the Azure data center, Microsoft has engaged Dell's Data Center Solutions division, an independent unit of the company - which has its own research, design, manufacturing, marketing, and sales employees - that was expressly created in the spring of 2006 to chase  the cloud computing-Web 2.0-utility computing opportunity. DCS makes custom servers tuned for specific workloads and data center power and cooling envelopes. It does not sell standard PowerEdge iron and PowerVault storage.
According to Forrest Norrod, vice president and general manager of the unit, this small piece of Dell has close to 200 employees and is chasing 30 cloudy customers (including the brass ring called Google). While the DCS unit doesn't break out sales, Norrod says that in the second quarter of 2008, if DCS was broken out as a separate company, it would have ranked among the top five server shippers in the world. At the very least, that is tens of thousands of servers. Ironically, the whole DCS approach is the absolute antithesis of the "standardize and sell direct" approach that put Dell on the map in PCs and made it a player in servers.
According to a Dell spokesperson, the company has won the sole server and storage hardware deal for the Azure platform, and this involves more than a few racks of servers, too. (Exactly how much, Dell is not at liberty to say, and Web 2.0-style companies, as Microsoft is trying to become, get all kinds of nervous about the competitive advantage their data centers give them and don't tend to share the details).
Norrod, in a video interview done by Dell , says the company is supplying Microsoft with the custom server and storage nodes behind Azure, which are located in a data center in Quincy, Washington.
Dell eying containerized data centers?
As for the specific designs of the servers, all Dell will say is that the servers it creates for DCS customers have right-sized power supplies and fans, so energy is not wasted; low-flow fan algorithms that increase fan efficiency and return air temperature to computer room air-conditioning units; increased memory density that helps reduce excess heat and overall power consumption in the server; and custom-designed chasses that help optimize density and airflow.
The machines are undoubtedly based on x64 processors, although it would be hilarious if Windows Azure was running on Itanium iron (which is technically possible but logically stupid, especially since Dell doesn't really like Itanium and Microsoft only does because it helps kill RISC/Unix a little).
Here's a link  to a cloud server design Dell has done, called the XS23, that the company is willing to talk about. It has four two-socket servers and a dozen 3.5-inch drives in a 2U space. Here's another link , one to the companion J23 JBOD disk array, which crams 23 disks into a 2U space. (That's a dozen drives in the front, eleven in the back, and the power supplies in the middle; the power cord eats the space of one of the drives in the back).
"The scale at which Microsoft is building out their cloud and the infrastructure to support Windows Azure absolutely warranted really optimized solutions," explained Norrod. "We think they chose us because we gave them the solution that was power-optimized, performance-optimized, easy to deploy and scale to fulfill their needs and support it around the world."
A report in Data Center Knowledge claims that Microsoft has tested  Azure on iron from Verari Systems and Rackable Systems, niche blade and rack server makers who have maximized energy efficiency and density in their respective designs. This report says that while the initial Azure iron is sitting in the data center in Quincy, the Azure cloud will eventually be run in a containerized data center that Microsoft is planning for the outskirts of Chicago.
Verari sells its own containerized data centers, called Forrest, as do Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems. Microsoft is already a Verari customer (and one of its largest customers at that), so a Dell hardware win is a pretty big deal. Dell has been reportedly  working on its own containerized data center as well, and this may have been a key factor in its selection by Microsoft for the Azure iron.
The word on the street back in April was that Microsoft was buying 220 containers worth of gear to power its cloud computing effort for the Chicago data center. No word yet on whether this is still the plan. ®