Henry Ford, Data Center Pioneer

Ford Plant -- LOC -- photo.png

It turns out that Henry Ford's genius is a gift that keeps on giving.

The man who famously revolutionized manufacturing with the development of the assembly line, has also influenced how some companies deploy their servers. Hosting.com, for example, found an old Denver Model T factory was perfectly suited as a home to one of its data centers. And Microsoft is reducing the cost of its own data centers by applying Henry Ford's practices to how they're built.

In a video (embedded below), Hosting.com Chief Operating Officer Joel Daly explains why his company picked the Denver location. The old Model T plant had a lot of the "good characteristics" needed, he said.

"First and foremost is the amount of power that comes into the facility, which is probably the most important criteria whenever building and selecting a location," Daly said. With 14 Megawatts coming in, the site is among the most power-dense locations in the Denver metro area. And because the building was created to house heavy-duty manufacturing equipment, it was and is structurally sound enough to house Hosting.com's equipment. The location near downtown Denver isn't bad, either.

But it's not just Ford's factories that are well-suited to modern data centers. In 2008, Michael Manos, then-General Manager of Microsoft, explained how the company was applying Ford's ideas to its data centers over the following five years. The key to the new approach was a shift away from custom data centers and toward a modular approach. "In short," he wrote "we are striving to bring Henry Ford's Model T factory to the data center." Manos' Ford reference may be mostly metaphor, but it still underscores the industrialist's lasting impact on business practices.

Microsoft's "Generation 4" data centers would serve as the foundation of the company's cloud infrastructure, Manos wrote.

And just like Henry Ford's assembly line drove the cost of building and the time-to-market down dramatically for the automobile industry, we expect Gen 4 to do the same for data centers. Everything will be pre-manufactured.

Microsoft can then load its servers onto an 18-wheeler and move them anywhere, anytime. And it may not sound like a big deal, but the shift in strategy was a "big change," as InfoWorld pointed out at the time: "Manos said the Gen 4 design will cut the time it takes Microsoft to build a datacenter in half, to one year, and reduce its capital costs by up to 40 percent." Microsoft isn't alone. Google was awarded a patent on portable data centers in 2007 and confirmed their use in 2009. Dell, HP and IBM have also jumped on the bandwagon.

Oddly enough, If Ford were alive today and working with data centers, he might not benefit from the achievements of those before him in the same way. After all, he did once famously proclaim that "history is more or less bunk."

Image: Ford factory, Detroit, Michigan. From the Library of Congress.


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Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at TheAtlantic.com, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, NirajC.com. More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.

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