How Microsoft’s “Project Mountain” Stacks Up Against Data Centers From Google, Apple, And Facebook

It sure has a huge name–but how big is Microsoft’s data center, really? And what does it say about the company’s commitment to the cloud?

How Microsoft’s “Project Mountain” Stacks Up Against Data Centers From Google, Apple, And Facebook

Microsoft’s ominous-sounding “Project Mountain” is a $700 million investment in cloud storage for Office365 and Xbox One. Magnificently named, sure–but how big is it, really?


First, the dirt on the new data center: Located in West Des Moines, it will be built on the 40 acres Microsoft bought in 2009. Assuming Microsoft execs stay committed to their Generation 4 Modular Data Center design, the site will use six server-filled 40-foot metal containers, each prefabricated with wiring and natural airflow (no chillers or water cooling), which drastically reduces on-site construction and piping. The containers will be arranged and plugged into a central “spine” of power and networking, and the greater container cluster plugged into a nearby 40,000-square-foot administration building. Contingent with the data center arms race is a focus on energy efficiency; the Gen 4 centers aimed to hit a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) of 1.125 by last year.

Generation 4 Modular Data Center design

How Other Data Centers Stack Up

As the drive toward cloud storage heats up, data centers expand.

1) Apple

Apple’s Reno, Nevada, facility was predicted to go live last November. Confirmed in 2012, the facility sits on 345 acres of land, roughly twice that of Apple’s concurrent data center project under construction in Prineville, Oregon. A second building is planned to join the 338,000-square-foot building already erected in Prineville.

2) Amazon

Amazon’s January announcement to lease two data centers in Ashburn, Virginia is a relief to clients using Amazon’s U.S.-East servers, but certainly at odds with the other tech giants’ strategy to build their own data centers from the ground up. The first data center, coming in at 200,000 square feet, will go online in Q4 of this year, while the 115,000-square-foot second center will go online in mid-2014.


3) Facebook

Facebook announced that it would break ground on a massive 1.4 million-square-foot data center this summer in Altoona (code named Project Catapult), a suburb on the other side of Des Moines, to open in 2014. Like Microsoft’s phased expansion, Facebook dropped an initial $300 million into the Altoona location, with space to fit up to two more data centers. Though Facebook trumpeted the locally available wind power, the area is certainly accommodating megabusiness centers like Wells Fargo’s $350 million headquarters expansion and AvivaUSA’s $135 million headquarters.

4) Google

Google just put $400 million into its Council Bluffs campus (bringing the sitewide investment total to $1.5 billion), which sits just on the Iowa side of Omaha, Nebraska, and services Search, Maps, Gmail, and Google+. Suspiciously timed to steal Facebook’s thunder, Google’s simultaneous expansion news points to a quieter phenomenon as the dots across Iowa coalesce into a shrewd line of statewide strategy to lure tech investment.

The New Factory Towns

Like the factory towns of yore, West Des Moines still had to propose its own package offer in competition with other cities to secure Microsoft’s further investment in the city (which brought 29 jobs, according to one report), including a $20 million tax credit. Luring tech business with tax incentives is nothing new, but the promise of megacenters with the carrot of “future expansion” has driven cities to offer greater and greater packages in order to play for a timeline–an emergence of long-term strategy that has been imitated and raised enough to become an arms-race trend:

John Lenio, managing director of CBRE’s Economic Incentives Group, counts 15 states that now have data center-specific tax incentives–virtually all of which have been in place since 2008.

“States are seeing $500 million, $1 billion data centers, and they want to have a piece of that action,” Lenio said. “Without incentives, they weren’t landing on the short list.”

And incentives are certainly how Altoona became the third U.S. city to be chosen for a Facebook campus: The other two are Prineville, Oregon, (pop. 9,253) and Forest City, North Carolina, (pop. 7,549). As data centers, these locations do not need to be geographically adjacent to metropolitan centers–a distinction that separates the next wave of tech expansion from the Silicon Valley and Seattle megacampuses that use their tech nexus locations to lure skilled personnel. Instead, security, absence of natural disasters, and cheap energy (megacorp-size data centers typically require between 20 megawatts and 40 megawatts of electricity, enough to power between 15,000 and 30,000 homes) are the greatest factors in choosing data center hubs. With aggressive business incentives and tech-friendly infrastructure (including an already installed interstate fiber-optic cable line), Des Moines is fast becoming a minor tech stronghold itself, but whether these expansion campuses can rival their big-city cousins in coagulating into a rallying point for tech culture remains to be seen.


[Image: Flickr user Tobias]