Datacenter commissioning at Microsoft transforms thanks to Compass

Apr 15, 2021   |  

It used to be a lot harder for Nich Zies and his team to verify critical infrastructure by checking electrical, fire safety, and all the auxiliary systems needed to power buildings, during datacenter construction.

“When Microsoft has a new use for a datacenter, we verify that all the equipment meets our specifications,” Zies says. “One of the things about any kind of quality-type process is documentation. If the documentation isn’t there, it never happened.”

When Zies, now a Microsoft regional commissioning lead for the Americas, first started, this kind of documentation was all done via Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, Microsoft Word document, and email.

“Before, all the files went into one big folder,” Zies says. “There will be points down the road where you might need to go back and see if something was tested, especially if something goes wrong.”

Syed Mazhar smiles for a selfie.
Syed Mazhar is a software engineer on the Compass team. (Photo by Syed Mazhar)

This along with other manual and decentralized steps, made things difficult.

Commissioning is more than just documentation, and datacenter construction is more than just commissioning. Datacenter construction relies on a myriad of teams working harmoniously in sequence to successfully bring new services to customers. Everything from site selection to safety relies on established stages and processes to ensure a quality build that comes in on time and on budget.

New datacenter construction takes anywhere between six months and three years. That timeline is getting better and more efficient thanks to a Microsoft Dynamics 365 solution developed by the Microsoft Datacenter Planning and Execution Engineering (DPXE) team in Microsoft’s Cloud Operations + Innovation Engineering (CO+I E) organization.

Called Compass, the internal-to-Microsoft tool built on the Dynamics 365 platform manages and orchestrates procurement, cost management, change management, safety and commissioning brings visibility and unity to the complex world of new datacenter construction. The tool is now managed by Microsoft Digital, the organization that powers, protects, and transforms Microsoft.

As a result, end users like Zies and other stakeholders have a secure and dynamic way to improve processes.

“Compass helps us take all of those very hard-to-find documents and organizes them, and that’s one of the minor things it does,” Zies says. “This system looks at a multi-step process and tells us what we need to complete before moving on to the next phase.”

Thanks to the new solution, datacenter construction now has efficient process management and oversight.

[Learn how Microsoft drives digital transformation with modern network infrastructure. Discover how Microsoft moved IT infrastructure management to the cloud with Microsoft Azure.]

Transforming datacenter construction

The Compass team, led by Danielle Harden, a senior engineering program manager with DPXE, and Venkatesh Muthiah, a principal software engineer with DPXE, selected Dynamics 365 to move away from third-party legacy systems that had scalability and security issues. Microsoft Digital was selected as the implementation partner.

As demand for Microsoft Azure and Microsoft’s cloud-based businesses grew, so did the need for new datacenters. Exponential growth in Microsoft Azure usage meant datacenter construction needed a revamp. In order to maintain a competitive advantage in cloud innovation, teams would need to deliver quality datacenters at a low cost around the globe.

“Digital transformation triggered everything,” says Swaroopa Gajji, a principal software engineering manager with Microsoft Digital.

Compass is all about reducing the manual process to improve communication and integration. But it wasn’t as simple as building an automation platform.

“Datacenter construction happens all over the world,” Gajji says. “Each country and region use tools in different ways. We had to learn the processes and needs of every group.”

Looking to build Compass in a centralized way, the Compass team conducted a series of interviews with dozens of groups who participate in new datacenter construction, including Zies.

“They spent a long time trying to determine which functions needed to be there,” Zies says. “It was about understanding the day-to-day work that goes into new construction.”

According to Gajji, bringing everyone onto the same page meant building one simplified process to maximize the impact of Compass.

“We want to standardize the process globally,” Gajji says. A single process, according to Gajji, will help collaborators maximize the value of Compass. However, the solution still accounts for some variation, including regional differences in regulations and processes. “We also made the system customizable so users can configure it to their needs.”

Once user requirements were understood, the team could go deep on executing a new vision for datacenter construction.

Building one system for all

“Lots of external tools were being leveraged,” says Rajat Singhal, a senior software engineer with Microsoft Digital who helped build Compass. “Now, most of these solutions are built using Microsoft products, customized to develop Compass. The design is flexible.”

Building Compass on Microsoft Dynamics 365 made it easy to create modules to support each workstream needed to build a datacenter. It also allowed for work to be centralized into one system and promoted standardization while still allowing for customization.

No longer would teams need multiple solutions for cost management, procurement, or the variety of operational processes that contribute to new datacenter construction.

“We have a module where budgets can be estimated and tracked,” Singhal says. “How much budget is being utilized? How much is left? Further on, we have a module for the commissioning process, like inspecting and testing equipment.”

The de-coupled architecture of Compass allows the platform to adapt to regional variance and different needs.

“Let’s just say someone needs eSigning in their finance and operation,” Singhal says. “They can use this module because we have de-coupled architecture. There are several processes that can be reused as part of a bigger system or as modules.”

This is how end users like Zies can synchronize efforts with other teams to support optimal datacenter construction.

“Compass puts rules in place to make sure people adhere to the process,” Zies says. “If an issue is open, the system forces us to resolve it or agree that it’s not a blocker before we can proceed.”

Automating old practices

Where possible, Singhal and Microsoft Digital automated legacy processes and added telemetry to improve the visibility of efforts.

“Automating manual processes saves days,” Gajji says. “Everything from planning, designing, cost management, commissioning, and safety—all of these are critical processes, and all of them are handled in Compass. The goal is for 100 percent automation.”

And they’re getting closer to that milestone.

A lot of mundane and small micromanagement stuff is taken care of in Compass. The bigger issues, things that actually need to be completed by a human, now have our focus.

– Nich Zies, regional commissioning lead, Microsoft Digital

“We have automated 54 of 68 processes into Compass,” Singhal says. “We want to reduce the amount of time any step takes. We can measure how much time it takes. Our aim is to take that time down through automation.”

This is one area where Zies enthusiastically agrees.

“A lot of mundane and small micromanagement stuff is taken care of in Compass,” Zies says. “The bigger issues, things that actually need to be completed by a human, now have our focus.”

The telemetry is another benefit to Zies’ team.

“We can now analyze data from the project,” Zies says. “How long did it take to get to different points? How many issues did we encounter? What’s recurring?”

This intelligence allows teams to identify bottlenecks and develop new practices. Tracking inside of Compass enables real-time insights that employees can use to see how Compass lines up to other projections.

“To me, real-time visibility and transparency are important,” Zies says. “Business decisions are made based on data. If I don’t have correct data, it’s difficult to make a good business decision.”

There’s another benefit to all this visibility—accountability.

“Before, we had to pull vendor issues manually, and that’s just a pain,” Zies says. “Now I can go into Compass, pick their name, and it shows me all the issues the vendor has, where and when it was found, and if it was preventable. Several vendors are adjusting their process in the factory so that issues are caught earlier.”

All of these centralized, structured datasets generated by Compass create opportunities for even more intelligence. Predictive and prescriptive analytics derived from Compass’ telemetry enables additional efficiencies, cost savings, and scalable growth in datacenter construction.

Navigating to new horizons with Compass

Compass is already a big hit.

A variety of major tasks have seen measurable outcomes.

Improvements to cost management have cut cashflow cycle times from 11 to six days. Supplier onboarding has been reduced from around eight days to less than 12 hours. Contract processing on purchase orders has dropped from a multi-week experience to less than seven days.

Early and frequent engagement with the various teams involved in new datacenter construction allowed the Compass team to gain buy-in. Listening to feedback and designing Compass around the needs of end users drove user adoption.

Compass can be used by others if they have a similar problem. We want to be able to create a solution that’s generic so that other customers can leverage it.

– Rajat Singhal, senior software engineer, Microsoft Digital

“We have thousands of users now,” Gajji says. “We defined one simplified process, did user training, and got buy-in. This is one process that we will follow across the globe.”Singhal sees Compass having an impact outside of Microsoft—not just on datacenters, but any large-scale construction process with multiple teams and steps.

“Compass can be used by others if they have a similar problem,” Singhal says. “We want to be able to create a solution that’s generic so that other customers can leverage it.”

Teams will eventually be able to grab and localize their own version of Compass, using a variety of modules to support efficient construction practices.

In addition to the drive for full automation, the DPXE and Microsoft Digital teams will continue to build new features in Compass that improve the efficiencies of new datacenter construction.

“Outlook-based approvals are coming,” Singhal says. “Instead of having to go into Compass, end users can sign off through emails.”

All of these small efforts result in significant time savings the team was seeking.

“There’s a notable difference in how projects flow,” Zies says. “Our duration for each task is going down. We’re more efficient.”

It used to be a lot harder for Zies and his team to verify critical infrastructure during datacenter construction. Now his team has Compass.

“We used to have a variety of different programs, third-party and in-house,” Zies says. “Compass replaces all of those with a single source of information that’s all linked together. The more we improve on our efficiencies, the faster we can get the datacenter to market.”

Learn how Microsoft drives digital transformation with modern network infrastructure.

Discover how Microsoft moved IT infrastructure management to the cloud with Microsoft Azure.

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