Microsoft’s Link in the Global Data Chain

Microsoft’s data center construction department is behind more than $15 billion in resilient infrastructure for the company’s cloud services around the world, and as the department’s global director, Steven Ford has seen it grow into a world-class network

It might seem hard to fathom a time when Microsoft wasn’t employing teams of people throughout the world to build centers and fortify the company’s ability to process and manage its data—much less a time in the 21st century—but Steven Ford can remember it. Steven_Ford_038_v2_400x600

“Originally, the team didn’t even have ‘construction’ in the name,” he says. “It was called ‘the data center development team,’ and there were three of us.”

That was in 2006, when Microsoft hired Ford as one of the founders of that development team. A short 10 years later, he’s now the global director of data center construction for Microsoft, leading a division that employs thousands of construction workers. Today, Microsoft’s infrastructure includes more than 100 data centers located in more than 40 countries, including Australia, Brazil, China, Finland, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Japan, Netherlands, Singapore, and the United States. Under the umbrella of data center construction, Ford says that the company now employs teams for site selection, procurement, design, construction, and commissioning/integrating.

That kind of structured discipline proved incredibly helpful in 2015 when Microsoft had to finish work on a 35-megawatt data center in Singapore. Typically, Ford says, building a data center means finding a site that takes into account more than 35 weighted criteria, including close proximity to customers, an ample and reliable power source and fiber-
optic networks, a large pool of skilled labor, and affordable energy rates to determine the long-term viability of each site. This usually translates into building a sprawling, one-story center on that land.

“There isn’t that kind of land in Singapore—it’s like trying to build in the middle of New York City,” he says. “So we had to come up with a multiple-story solution.”

Building up isn’t uncommon when there isn’t a lot of land to be had on the ground, but the difference between a data center and, say, a condominium high-rise in the center of a city is the weight (and height) considerations that need to be accounted for in data centers. While the data center in Singapore technically has nine stories, that’s a result of the height clearances needed on each floor. For almost any other development, Ford says, the building would actually constitute 18 stories.

“When you consider the weight of that building that transcends into the substructure, and the amount of fuel and electrical considerations needed, what we did in Singapore really is an engineering feat,” Ford says.

“When you consider the weight of that building that transcends into the substructure, and the amount of fuel and electrical considerations needed, what we did in Singapore really is an engineering feat.”

Steven Ford, Global Director, Data Center Construction & Delivery

The majority of data center projects don’t come preloaded with those kinds of land restrictions or additional engineering considerations, but the efficiency with which the company gets these centers built is impressive. In his role, Ford oversees and manages all projects from construction to turn over to Data Center Operations, and as of press time, he says he helped bring several data centers online in the preceding six months.

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Microsoft’s data centers help support cloud services for customers throughout the world. (Photo: Jeremy Hyldahl)

Ford is also responsible for yearly budgeting processes and collecting and refining specific budgets for the company. Unsurprisingly, with an expanded department and global presence, the scale of the data center development business has also grown dramatically for Microsoft—Ford says the company has invested more than $15 billion in building global cloud infrastructure and more than $9 billion in research and development to improve efficiency of IT solutions, cloud services, and operations.

It might be even more astounding to consider this work increase in light of the fact that this growth continues to happen at a time when the workforce gets thinner. When asked about the most surprising changes between building a data center in 2006 and building one in 2016, Ford points out that  the labor shortage never fully recovered from the economic downturn the company saw in 2008. Although it means more competition amongst the different building trades, Ford says a lack of overall interest from younger generations in the construction industry means he has to reconsider the company’s supply-chain strategy.

In order to satisfy its clients, Ford says Microsoft is doing more legwork ahead of projects to determine not only the volume of work that will need to be done, but also provide the most accurate estimates on when work will be done and how much projects will cost. That rationale has led to a greater focus on premanufactured, preassembled, skidded equipment building practices, which he says is the favored way of doing business in order to reduce onsite labor, improve quality and reduce the overall schedule.

“It leads to a higher-quality product, and a greater amount of predictability in terms of delivery,” Ford says. “It also lowers labor costs and enables us to maintain the supply chain.”

Given the workload that Microsoft has taken on in the past few years and the work ahead, that’s just the kind of management to keep a global brand on top of its game.


 

THE MORE YOU KNOW ABOUT DATA CENTERS

Data centers are essentially the real life versions of the Internet. It doesn’t mean that you can walk into one and see cat videos in the making, but somewhere within the stacks of servers, those videos are being housed.

Microsoft opened its first data center on the Redmond campus in September 1989.

Today, Microsoft’s infrastructure includes more than 100 data centers located in more than 40 countries.

Microsoft’s data centers help support all of the company’s cloud services globally, including consumer services such as Bing, MSN, Xbox Live, Skype, OneDrive, etc., as well as business cloud solutions, including Microsoft Azure, Office 365, and Dynamics CRM Online.