The University of Arizona and Microsoft Corp. are partnering on a new cloud-computing research center to study issues like how to make power-hungry computer data centers more efficient and sustainable.
The UA’s Cloud Infrastructure Renewal Center will foster research on new data-center technologies, boost workforce development for data centers and cloud computing, and help faculty, UA optics professor Robert Norwood said as he announced the cloud partnership Wednesday at the TenWest Festival.
Cloud computing — essentially the practice of storing and managing computer data on remote servers linked to the internet, rather than using on-site computer servers — is growing exponentially as online storage and software demands more data storage.
But the massive data centers operated by Microsoft and other tech companies face huge challenges in scaling up cloud capacity, including managing energy use and space, and training enough engineers and technicians to design and run them.
“We’re trying to solve the problem of scaling the cloud, essentially enabling more people to easily access their information, and doing that in a way that is sustainable,” said Norwood, a professor in the UA College of Optical Sciences who is spearheading the effort.
The cloud center — the first such collaboration Microsoft has established with a university — will include UA researchers in various disciplines, such as architects, optical engineers and material scientists, who will focus on developing sustainable data centers.
Microsoft will donate data center hardware to support expanded research, curriculum development and training labs, the UA said.
The center’s education program will develop a dedicated curriculum covering technical certifications, an undergraduate degree program and postgraduate certification programs.
Norwood said the Cloud Infrastructure Renewal Center has been two years in the making and is still going through final approvals and planning.
He said the center fits nicely with the UA’s current strategic planning process, which has been described by UA President Robert Robbins as positioning the school for the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” merging the physical, biological and digital sciences.
Initially, Norwood said, the center will look to develop cloud-computing curricula to allow students to earn a certificate in data-center operations and a four-year bachelor’s of applied science engineering degree, with the first two years of classes at Pima Community College.
The UA also is looking at offering postgraduate certificates for new as well as existing data-center employees, in areas like information-technology energy management.
Norwood said the center hopes to define the curricula and get some classes going next spring, though most of the programs will start next fall.
Center organizers already have identified courses across campus that fulfill about 85 percent of the planned curricula, he added.
“From an education point of view, we have to make a business case (for the programs) like anything else,” Norwood said.
Norwood said he hopes the cloud-computing center will develop into a major research effort that will attract other industry partners.
During a TenWest keynote speech, the head of Microsoft’s global data-center development effort said the industry faces major challenges in resiliency, environmental sustainability, supply chains and workforce development as cloud computing drives ever-larger data needs.
Microsoft has invested more than $15 billion in one of the world’s biggest cloud-computing networks, with 54 data centers serving 140 countries, said Christian Belady, general manager of cloud infrastructure strategy and architecture in Seattle.
Belady said the company has installed 1.26 gigawatts of renewable energy to power its data centers and has a goal of using 100 percent renewable energy while minimizing water use.
A single data center can draw as much energy as a small town and use large amounts of water for cooling.
“We’re looking at every aspect of the data center from a sustainability standpoint,” he said.
Mike Miles, general manager of workforce and community development for Microsoft’s cloud-computing business, said he hopes the UA center will help the tech giant answer some of its trickiest issues.
“The space is growing so fast that a lot of the problems you could get your arms around five years ago, you cant even get your arms around anymore — where are we going to get half a gigawatt of energy for our campuses, how are we going to make sure a portion of that is renewable?” he said.
“Those are the kinds of problems that we need to bring outside, to get more academic, five- and 10-year horizon views.”