Insider Redux: Data Barn in a Farm Town

I thought I would start my first post by addressing the second New York Times article first. Why? Because it specifically mentions activities and messages sourced from me at the time when I was responsible for running the Microsoft Data Center program. I will try to track the timeline mentioned in the article with my specific recollections of the events. As Paul Harvey used to say, so then you could know the ‘REST of the STORY’.

I remember my first visit to Quincy, Washington. It was a bit of a road trip for myself and a few other key members of the Microsoft site selection team. We had visited a few of the local communities and power utility districts doing our due diligence on the area at large. Our ‘Heat map’ process had led us to Eastern Washington state. Not very far (just a few hours) from the ‘mothership’ of Redmond, Washington. It was a bit of a crow eating exercise for me as just a few weeks earlier I had proudly exclaimed that our next facility would not be located on the West Coast of the United States. We were developing an interesting site selection model that would categorize and weight areas around the world. It would take in FEMA disaster data, fault zones, airport and logistics information, location of fiber optic and carrier presence, workforce distributions, regulatory and tax data, water sources, and power. This was going to be the first real construction effort undertaken by Microsoft. The cost of power was definitely a factor as the article calls out. But just as equal was the generation mix of the power in the area. In this case a predominance of hydroelectric. Low to No carbon footprint (Rivers it turns out actually give off carbon emissions I came to find out). Regardless the generation mix was and would continue to be a hallmark of site selection of the program when I was there. The crow-eating exercise began when we realized that the ‘greenest’ area per our methodology was actually located in Eastern Washington along the Columbia River.

We had a series of meetings with Real Estate folks, the local Grant County PUD, and the Economic Development folks of the area. Back in those days the secrecy around who we were was paramount, so we kept our identities and that of our company secret. Like geeky secret agents on an information gathering mission. We would not answer questions about where we were from, who we were, or even our names. We ‘hid’ behind third party agents who took everyone’s contact information and acted as brokers of information. That was early days…the cloak and dagger would soon come out as part of the process as it became a more advantageous tool to be known in tax negotiations with local and state governments.

During that trip we found the perfect parcel of land, 75 acres with great proximity to local sub stations, just down line from the Dams on the nearby Columbia River. It was November 2005. As we left that day and headed back it was clear that we felt we had found Site Selection gold. As we started to prepare a purchase offer we got wind that Yahoo! was planning on taking a trip out to the area as well. As the local folks seemingly thought that we were a bank or large financial institution they wanted to let us know that someone on the Internet was interested in the area as well. This acted like a lightning rod and we raced back to the area and locked up the land before they Yahoo had a chance to leave the Bay Area. In these early days the competition was fierce. I have tons of interesting tales of cloak and dagger intrigue between Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. While it was work there was definitely an air of something big on the horizon. That we were all at the beginning of something. In many ways many of the Technology professionals involved regardless of company forged some deep relationships and competition with each other.

Manos on the Bean Field December 2005The article talks about how the ‘Gee-Whiz moment faded pretty fast’. While I am sure that it faded in time (as all things do), I also seem to recall the huge increase of local business as thousands of construction workers descended upon this wonderful little town, the tours we would give local folks and city council dignitaries, a spirit of true working together. Then of course there was the ultimate reduction in properties taxes resulting from even our first building and an increase in home values to boot at the time. Its an oft missed benefit that I am sure the town of Quincy and Grant County has continued to benefit from as the Data Center Cluster added Yahoo, Sabey, IAC, and others. I warmly remember the opening day ceremonies and ribbon cutting and a sense of pride that we did something good. Corny? Probably – but that was the feeling. There was no talk of generators. There were no picket signs, in fact the EPA of Washington state had no idea on how to deal with a facility of this size and I remember openly working in partnership on them. That of course eventually wore off to the realities of life. We had a business to run, the city moved on, and concerns eventually arose.

The article calls out a showdown between Microsoft and the Power Utility District (PUD) over a fine for missing capacity forecasting target. As this happened much after I left the company I cannot really comment on that specific matter. But I can see how that forecast could miss. Projecting power usage months ahead is more than a bit of science mixed with art. It gets into the complexity of understanding capacity planning in your data centers. How big will certain projects grow. Will they meet expectations?, fall short?, new product launches can be duds or massive successes. All of these things go into a model to try and forecast the growth. If you think this is easy I would submit that NOONE in the industry has been able to master the crystal ball. I would also submit that most small companies haven’t been able to figure it out either. At least at companies like Microsoft, Google, and others you can start using the law and averages of big numbers to get close. But you will always miss. Either too high, or too low. Guess to low and you impact internal budgeting figures and run rates. Not Good. Guess to high and you could fall victim to missing minimal contracts with utility companies and be subject to fines.

In the case mentioned in the article, the approach taken if true would not be the smartest method especially given the monthly electric bill for these facilities. It’s a cost of doing business and largely not consequential at the amount of consumption these buildings draw. Again, if true, it was a PR nightmare waiting to happen.

At this point the article breaks out and talks about how the Microsoft experience would feel more like dealing with old-school manufacturing rather than ‘modern magic’ and diverts to a situation at a Microsoft facility in Santa Clara, California.

The article references that this situation is still being dealt with inside California so I will not go into any detailed specifics, but I can tell you something does not smell right in the state of Denmark and I don’t mean the Diesel fumes. Microsoft purchased that facility from another company. As the usage of the facility ramped up to the levels it was certified to operate at, operators noticed a pretty serious issue developing. While the building was rated to run at certain load size, it was clear that the underground feeders were undersized and the by-product could have polluted the soil and gotten into the water system. This was an inherited problem and Microsoft did the right thing and took the high road to remedy it. It is my recollection that all sides were clearly in know of the risks, and agreed to the generator usage whenever needed while the larger issue was fixed. If this has come up as a ‘air quality issue’ I personally would guess that there is politics at play. I’m not trying to be an apologist but if true, it goes to show that no good deed goes unpunished.

At this point the article cuts back to Quincy. It’s a great town, with great people. To some degree it was the winner of the Internet Jackpot lottery because of the natural tech resources it is situated on. I thought that figures quoted around taxes were an interesting component missed in many of the reporting I read.

“Quincy’s revenue from property taxes, which data centers do pay, has risen from $815,250 in 2005 to a projected $3.6 million this year, paying for a library and repaved streets, among other benefits, according to Tim Snead, the city administrator.”

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post my job is ultimately to get things done and deliver results. When you are in charge of a capital program as large as Microsoft’s program was at the time – your mission is clear – deliver the capacity and start generating value to the company. As I was presented the last cropThe last bag of beans harvested in Quincy of beans harvested from the field at the ceremony we still had some ways to go before all construction and capacity was ready to go. One of the key missing components was the delivery and installation of a transformer for one of the substations required to bring the facility up to full service. The article denotes that I was upset that the PUD was slow to deliver the capacity. Capacity I would add that was promised along a certain set of timelines and promises and commitments were made and money was exchanged based upon those commitments. As you can see from the article, the money exchanged was not insignificant. If Mr. Culbertson felt that I was a bit arrogant in demanding a follow through on promises and commitments after monies and investments were made in a spirit of true partnership, my response would be ‘Welcome to the real world’. As far as being cooperative, by April the construction had already progressed 15 months since its start. Hardly a surprise, and if it was, perhaps the 11 acre building and large construction machinery driving around town could have been a clue to the sincerity of the investment and timelines. Harsh? Maybe. Have you ever built a house? If so, then you know you need to make sure that the process is tightly managed and controlled to ensure you make the delivery date.

The article then goes on to talk about the permitting for the Diesel generators. Through the admission of the Department of Ecology’s own statement, “At the time, we were in scramble mode to permit our first one of these data centers.” Additionally it also states that:

Although emissions containing diesel particulates are an environmental threat, they were was not yet classified as toxic pollutants in Washington. The original permit did not impose stringent limits, allowing Microsoft to operate its generators for a combined total of more than 6,000 hours a year for “emergency backup electrical power” or unspecified “maintenance purposes.”

At the time all this stuff was so new, everyone was learning together. I simply don’t buy that this was some kind Big Corporation versus Little Farmer thing. I cannot comment on the events of 2010 where Microsoft asked for itself to be disconnected from the Grid. Honestly that makes no sense to me even if the PUD was working on the substation and I would agree with the articles ‘experts’.

Well that’s my take on my recollection of events during those early days of the Quincy build out as it relates to the articles. Maybe someday I will write a book as the process and adventures of those early days of birth of Big Infrastructure was certainly exciting. The bottom line is that the data center industry is amazingly complex and the forces in play are as varied as technology to politics to people and everything in between. There is always a deeper story. More than meets the eye. More variables. Decisions are never black and white and are always weighted against a dizzying array of forces.

\Mm

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4 thoughts on “Insider Redux: Data Barn in a Farm Town

  1. Pingback: Mike Manos tells the rest of story - NYTimes DC cont. - Data Center Zone | Data Center Zone

  2. Mike, I think the right thing was done at the time and long term. The piece was poorly researched and written, and clearly sensationalism. It’s sad to see folks who one might think of as partners also perhaps misquoted or portrayed negatively. The people in Quincy have been overwhelmingly supportive and, together with local authorities, helped make it a burgeoning hub of DC activity that simply would not exist otherwise. Santa Clara is a whole other bag and again, the author seems to have gone out of his way to portray the situation negatively. He seems to dance around good information and fails to explain technology as it should be understood, perhaps for simplicity’s sake, but I feel more for dramatic effect. It’s a narrow minded and frankly untruthful piece and The Times should be ashamed. Bravo for responding.

  3. Thanks for the response, Mike. The basic fact remains that the rules whereby we manufacture and sell electrical power are in sad need of moderization. We are faced with the bad choices of penalizing the provider that built and funded the infrastructure or the user that took the trouble to conserve — all in the name of keeping the world where it was a decade ago. As intermittant power (CHP, wind, solar, distrubuted generation, net metering) collide with this very slow change in regulation we will have many more examples like this.

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