Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Wyoming Broadband Summit: New generation of Microsoft data centers to be tested in Cheyenne

Microsoft's Gregg McKnight was in Cheyenne today talking about a pilot project for a new kind of data center. He was a speaker at the first Wyoming Broadband Summit at Little America.

Asked McKnight: “Who would have expected Cheyenne to be the place where the next generation of data centers would arise?”

Not me. Maybe not you, or your neighbors. And possibly not McKnight, not until he visited Cheyenne a few months ago.

He was greeted warmly by officials from the University of Wyoming, Cheyenne LEADS, Board of Public Utilities and other members of the community.

“This was a dream” he said, adding that, over the course of several days, he discovered that Cheyenne “was the ideal location to do business.”

Microsoft wants to build a $7.6 million data center that will run off of methane produced by the city’s Dry Creek Water Reclamation Facility. To that end, the city of Cheyenne will apply for $1.5 million from the Wyoming Business Council's Council’s Business Ready Community Grant and Loan Program. Three weeks ago, the Cheyenne City Council’s Finance Committee gave its approval to move the request forward. If approved, the grant would cover up to $1.5 million of the project’s total cost, with Microsoft providing the balance.

According to officials at the computing giant, the project would consist of the data plant, which would be connected to a fuel cell. Both would be in close proximity to the water reclamation facility, which is located on Campstool Road just south of Interstate 80.

The fuel cell would collect excess methane gas from the water reclamation facility’s biodigester and would then convert the gas into about 300 kilowatts of electricity. The data center itself would require only 200 kilowatts to run. Not sure where the remaining 100 Kw would do. Presumably it could be used for other energy needs in Cheyenne.

The plant will test Microsoft's new “siliconization” process, which utilizes silicon to move beyond the era of the microprocessor. McKnight gave a quick explanation which went way over my head. He showed a slide that illustrated this formula: “Si Systems + Fuel Cells + Modularity=Reimagine the Data Center.” Sounds cool to me. Faster technology is needed for the 200-plus cloud services Microsoft now provides. “There will be a twelve-fold increase in the amount of info that flows through the optic fiber backbone in the next five years,” McKnight said. He called the Cheyenne experiment the next step in “the evolving data center.”

The fuel cell data plant is separate from a $112 million cloud data center Microsoft has proposed to build to the west of Cheyenne, near the recently-opened National Center for Atmospheric Research supercomputing facility.

McKnight is quite happy with Cheyenne. And why wouldn't he be? The state of Wyoming has pledged $10.7 million in grants and incentives for the cloud data center project. Microsoft is making an initial $78-million investment and plans to go up to $112 million, according to Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who also spoke at Tuesday's summit. He's a big believer in data centers. And I'm beginning to believe that he's on the right track. All of this will change Cheyenne for the better. New technology. New ideas. New people moving in. New energy mixes with old energy. Not sure what the formula is for that, but it could be a heady mix.

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