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Model of efficiency

Web Posted: 04/12/2008 09:00 AM CDT

L.A. Lorek
Express-News Business Writer

A lone oak in front of Microsoft's massive new data center in Westover Hills symbolizes the technology company's efforts at green business practices.

It's called the "Manos" tree, named for Mike Manos, Microsoft's senior director of data center services. He ordered Turner Construction, the facility's builders, to save it.

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"Microsoft made a commitment to save and preserve the old-growth live oak trees," Manos said. "For the most part, in the area where we constructed the data center, there wasn't any old-growth oaks except for one — dead center in the middle of the construction project."

So Turner's workers built the building around the tree, which covers about as much ground as a sandbox, even putting up concrete barriers at times to save it. They also successfully saved dozens of old oak trees on the perimeter of the 44-acre site. Those trees will help shade the 470,000-square-foot building and reduce cooling costs.

In just a few months, Microsoft's new data center will go live. Turner and its subcontractor are on track to finish the first phase by July 31 and complete the entire building by Nov. 30, said Steven Ford, senior program manager for Microsoft's data center services. As the construction project comes to an end, Microsoft is halfway through hiring its 75 employees.

Microsoft's data center is one of the biggest construction projects to come to San Antonio in recent years. The entire project costs $550 million and has created more than 1,500 construction jobs. Most of the subcontractors came from Texas companies including 40 San Antonio businesses and 78 others statewide. San Antonio officials also granted the company $32.6 million in tax abatements and other local incentives to locate here.

Even while work comes to completion on one-half of the building, the site bustles with construction activity with bulldozers moving mounds of dirt and rock to create parking lots and the driveway. Altogether, construction workers moved 300,000 cubic yards of limestone during the entire construction process, Ford said. Because of the site's terrain, they had to raise the center's south wall 28 feet and the north wall almost 42 feet, he said.

San Antonio's inexpensive power, excellent telecommunications infrastructure, recycled water program and a stable environment appeals to Microsoft and other technology companies, said Mario Hernandez, president of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation.

Since Microsoft announced its project in January 2007, four other data center projects have announced projects, and Hernandez expects more announcements shortly. He is working with eight more data center prospects.

"When you're touted as one of the premier sites for data centers, it sends a message to other companies," Hernandez said. He just got back from meeting with high-tech companies in Los Angeles and San Francisco that wanted to know more about San Antonio's data center industry.

"It's doing wonders for us around the country as far as our profile goes," Hernandez said.

Robert Peché, the city's economic development director, echoed that sentiment.

"When you can talk about companies like Microsoft, AT&T and Valero being in your community, that just sends a wonderful message," Peché said. "It's an endorsement of San Antonio as a good place to do business."

Microsoft's mammoth building looks like a mirror image of its first built-to-suit data center in Quincy, Wash., but it has a lot of incremental improvements over that facility simply because Microsoft has learned through the process how to design the center more efficiently, Manos said. Those improvements include the ways the servers are laid out in the rooms, the lighting in the building and other materials used for construction.

From the outside, though, it looks similar. It resembles a giant warehouse with 600,000-gallon water storage tanks on either side.

In addition to the conservation of trees, Microsoft has other green initiatives under way, such as plans to use an estimated 6 million to 8 million gallons a month of gray water or recycled water from the San Antonio Water System.

Inside, the data center contains a labyrinth of corridors leading to the brains of Microsoft's Internet operations. That's a series of five secure rooms containing thousands of computer servers that deliver up Web pages, photos, videos, instant messages, e-mails and software programs.