Microsoft has come up with a faster, cheaper way to build its datacentres over the next five years, and it says other companies could use its methods too.

Microsoft's approach, described by General Manager Michael Manos in a blog post Tuesday, uses a modular design in which standard units of computing, cooling and electrical equipment are delivered to a facility on the back of a truck and assembled on site. The system, which Microsoft calls its "Generation 4" design, will allow its datacentres to become operational more quickly and cut the cost of building traditional, brick and mortar facilities.

"Our 'Gen 4' modular datacentres will take the flexibility of containerised servers - like those in our Chicago datacentre - and apply it across the entire facility," Manos wrote, referring to servers that are delivered and run in self-contained shipping containers. "Think of it like 'building blocks,' where the datacentre will be composed of modular units of prefabricated mechanical, electrical, security components, in addition to containerised servers."

Some companies already use modular computing and cooling systems for specific jobs, but Microsoft is taking the idea a step further. Its clout as a big customer means it can persuade equipment makers to build products that meet its specifications, and it is developing common interfaces for computers, power supplies and generators that manufacturers will be able to "plug into," it said.

The company has made a short video (see below), to explain the concept.

<a rel="nofollow" href="" target="_new" title="Microsoft Generation 4.0 Data Center Vision">Video: Microsoft Generation 4.0 Data Center Vision</a>

"In short, we are striving to bring Henry Ford’s Model T factory to the datacentre. ... Gen 4 will move datacentres from a custom design and build model to a commoditised manufacturing approach. We intend to have our components built in factories and then assemble them in one location (the datacentre site) very quickly. "

It would be a big change in how datacentres are built and one that's important for Microsoft as it looks for a cost effective way to expand the infrastructure for its online services. Microsoft plans to build 20 "supersize" datacentres in the coming years at a cost of up to $1 billion each, according to a recent BusinessWeek article. Manos said the Gen 4 design will cut the time it takes Microsoft to build a datacentre in half, to one year, and reduce its capital costs by up to 40 percent.

The containerised equipment allows Microsoft to take other radical steps, like building datacentres with no roofs. Besides cutting construction costs, this makes it much easier to use outside air for cooling systems, one of the costliest areas of a datacentre. Microsoft said it is working with server vendors to develop systems that can operate in wider temperature ranges - 10 to 35 degrees centigrade - so that in some cases it can eliminate chiller equipment completely.

Bob Seese, chief architect with Advanced Datacentres, a San Francisco company that leases datacentre space, applauded Microsoft for sharing the information. Companies are typically secretive about what goes on in their datacentres, but along with Google and some other large companies, Microsoft has been opening up recently to discuss its best practices.

Pressuring vendors to design more flexible and standardised equipment could benefit all companies, Seese said. "One of our biggest struggles in the industry has been the tail wagging the dog - the manufacturers telling IT departments what they need. Having someone push back against the vendors could by itself change this industry tremendously," he said.

Datacentre operators are risk averse, he noted, because their jobs depend on keeping things running, and the research being done by Microsoft and others should help everyone. "As a result of their successes and failures, other companies are going to benefit," he said.

Others were less convinced. Ron Croce, the COO at datacentre infrastructure provider Validus DC Systems, said Microsoft and Google are unique in their requirements. Microsoft's online services are mostly web-based applications running on x86 servers, he said, and don't need the level of uptime and security as firms in, say, the financial services sector.

Building traditional datacentres may not be cost-effective for Microsoft, but for other companies it's still a necessity, he said. "A lot of the requirements are driven by regulatory mandates. If you're a financial services company, you can't have a datacentre with no roof."

"It's certainly a valid concept but I don't see it as suitable for everyone," said Christopher Johnston, vice president of critical facilities at Syska Hennessy Group. "I think people will have to make a judgement depending on the type of industry they are in."