Microsoft shipping container servers
Image: Zahi Asa / Protocol

Microsoft is putting server rooms in shipping containers

Protocol Enterprise

Welcome to Protocol Cloud, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about the week in cloud and enterprise software. This week: why your next Azure data center might arrive on a truck, HashiCorp has a new open-source tool for bringing Dev and Ops together, and do you know how much electricity your apps are using?

The Big Story

Clouds on the edge of town

If you've never seen a data center up close, and you find your post-pandemic self rolling through a part of the world that's home to one, it's worth a look. You can't get too close, of course — AWS doesn't even acknowledge their existence — but in lots of cases you can find them on Google Maps.

Most major cloud data centers are located either in easily accessible places with lots of bandwidth, like the Northern Virginia data center corridor, or in remote places with cheap land and cheap power, like the facilities operated by AWS, Google and Facebook in Eastern Oregon.

  • That strategy made sense in the early days of cloud computing and still works pretty well, but ignores wide swaths of South America, Africa and Asia as well as lots of places in North America and Europe that can't accommodate data center campuses, which can exceed a million square feet.

Microsoft has a vision for places where it can't build regular data centers. Its Azure Modular Datacenter, unveiled Tuesday as part of an expansion on its space strategy (more on that below), is a bet that the applications of the future are going to need more computing power in more places around the world that don't lend themselves to large-scale construction.

  • The MDC is about the size of a large trailer you might see on any major highway followed by a "WIDE LOAD" sign, and it contains hundreds of servers as well as storage and networking equipment.
  • It also comes with all the cooling equipment needed to properly operate that number of servers in a small area, and was designed to operate in harsh environmental conditions such as extreme heat.
  • It follows an experiment Microsoft conducted off the coast of Scotland over the last few years with an underwater data center, which could be placed off the coast of pretty much anywhere to deliver computing power in a pinch.

This isn't the industry's first experiment with portable data centers: The concept goes back to some of the earliest days of cloud computing, back when AWS data center guru James Hamilton was still working for Microsoft and companies like Sun Microsystems were playing around with the concept.

But the world has changed a lot in the last 15 years.

  • High-speed internet is available in far more places around the world, often through mobile networks, which has increased demand for real-time applications.
  • Meanwhile, the speed of light has remained stubbornly constant.
  • Cloud companies have made significant advances in data center efficiency and cooling technologies, allowing them to pack more and more servers into the same amount of space.
  • And satellite internet, which not all that long ago made dial-up look good, is now a viable option for data center connectivity thanks to several networks of satellites operated by Azure Space partners SpaceX and SES.

This all points to a future of hyper-local cloud computing capacity that can be scaled up or down much like regular cloud computing resources themselves. To be clear, shipping containers are not going to replace the massive data center complexes of the world.

But they could be a very interesting stop-gap for companies that need to deliver a large but temporary amount of fast computing capacity in a certain area: say, the next Super Bowl, or the next Hajj in Saudi Arabia.

  • Strategically placed modular data centers along major highways could help self-driving vehicles navigate road conditions in real time. Scientists conducting research in far-flung areas of the world could rent them to run AI calculations at the site. Honestly, just use your imagination.

Microsoft has been working toward this future over the last five years, with CEO Satya Nadella working the concept of "the intelligent edge" into nearly every major speech or interview he's delivered over that time. If his company's MDCs gain traction, the promise of edge computing will start to play out.



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This Week On Protocol

Space jam: Microsoft took the wraps off an expansion of its cloud strategy for customers operating in space. It's planning to improve space-to-ground communication with several satellite internet partnerships and expand a network of ground stations linked to its data centers.

Level up: Cloud gaming is one of those ideas that makes so much sense, except for all the failed attempts. Still, the big cloud companies, as well as gaming powerhouses like Sony, are determined to make it work, as Protocol's Seth Schiesel wrote in this week's Protocol Gaming newsletter.

Building blocks: HashiCorp is one of the most valuable private companies in cloud tech thanks to the right mix of compelling open-source projects and revenue-generating services. It introduced a new project last week called Waypoint that aims to help companies take their applications from code to production with a few automated steps.

Five Questions For...

Christal Bemont, CEO, Talend

What was your first tech job?

My first tech job was at Clarify, a CRM software vendor, where I was a solutions and technical consultant, building and doing demos for customers. I got this job after working for the two-way radio division of Motorola, bringing on tech vendors to improve our technology. Clarify was one of those vendors and recruited me after that.

What's the best piece of advice you could give to someone starting their first tech job?

This advice could apply to any role, not just tech: be authentic. You bring a unique set of skills that no one else has — whether you're a strong communicator or have an analytical mindset.

As a woman in a tech role, you're still the gender minority, and that's neither a good nor bad thing, so don't let it be more than a stat. Use your position as an opportunity to bring as many people along with you as possible on your journey. Most importantly, don't get in your own way.

Pick one piece of consumer or business software (that isn't sold by your company) that you can't live without.

I am directionally challenged, so I need Google Maps. I live one exit away from the Talend offices for a reason!

What was the biggest reason for the success of cloud computing over the past decade?

It's broadly a case of having to spend less time and resources on infrastructure. Services are now available to companies that give them the opportunity to consider a different way to scale and be more flexible, agile and cost efficient — they can then put their resources to better use and take the burden off themselves as an organization.

Will the pandemic usher in a new era of remote working, or will we all come back together when it is safe to do so?

There is nothing good about COVID, but when something has happened that's difficult and I can't understand, I ask what it's supposed to teach me and how I can become more capable of handling situations like this in the future. No one had a business continuity plan for COVID, but there is an opportunity for us to determine how nimble we are and how we're going to work in the future. The world is not just going back to normal — we're going to have a fluid, much less normalized way to return to work that gives us options and opportunity, and challenges us to think about what needs to happen.

Around the Cloud

Thanks for reading — see you next week.

Correction: This newsletter incorrectly identified which Atlassian products were being phased out and the timing of that move. The company is discontinuing the server versions of several products by 2024 but maintaining some data center versions.

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