Microsoft: Making the cloud business as usual

No flashing lights, no darkened rooms; a few dozen people run the whole of Azure from an ordinary office — and that's the point

When you think of a network operation centre (NOC), you think high tech and high security; guards, locked doors, giant screens on curved walls, darkened rooms and flashing alarm lights — a cross between NASA mission control and the control room for a nuclear power centre.

There are still plenty of NOCs that are that big and that impressive, but the one Microsoft runs Azure from is remarkable only for how ordinary it is. It's full of ordinary desks, with two large screens on each desk and even larger screens hanging on the wall or from the ceiling where everyone can see them.

They're not watching the big screens all the time; the map of the Azure network topology, the diagram of network latency and bandwidth, the statistics on open support cases and the social network sentiment that might alert the team to unhappy customers venting about a developing problem on Twitter are really there to put the information on your own desk in context rather than being the working screens for the team.

When we visited on a weekday afternoon, maybe 30 people were sitting at the desks, occasionally tapping away on their keyboards, monitoring the whole of Azure. There are plenty of spare desks, not because the team is growing — it's the same number of staff as this time last year and the same number of staff Microsoft expects to have running the Azure service next year — but to allow for the other two shifts that work here to cover the 24-hour day.

Apart from the large screens, the main reminders that this is a global operations centre are the rows of digital clocks showing the time around the world. There's no sign of tension, no humming sense of perpetual watchfulness; just a bunch of admins running a service.

The Azure data centres are a different matter — neither journalists nor customers get invited in for a look, but even the handful of admins at each Azure site don’t spend much time inside them; the racks of servers are housed in shipping containers and delivered already connected together. And if hardware fails, you don't rush to replace it.

Maybe once a month someone pushes a trolley around, pulling out dead hard drives and replacing them. But the point of the cloud is that you don't care about any individual drive or server, because the next one can do the job just as well, and your management tools will switch the load over to it automatically when it needs to.

Really, the NOC is just a larger version of the operations room where the Microsoft facilities team monitors the air conditioning, power usage and other everyday services for the campus. The ordinary feel of the Azure NOC is deliberate; the cloud isn't something special, it's just part of daily life for Microsoft now.

Things might get a little more exciting when something goes wrong, but most of the time running Azure is just another day at the office.

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