All Your Base Are Belong To Us: Why Microsoft's One Million Servers Might Matter

According to Steve Ballmer, Microsoft is now one of just a handful of companies with a seven-digit server deployment. Speaking at the company's Worldwide Partner Conference, Ballmer claimed that Microsoft had entered rare territory and used the number as an example of how few companies really understood how to run a cloud business. According to the CEO:
We have something over a million servers in our datacenter infrastructure. Google is bigger than we are. Amazon is a little bit smaller. You get Yahoo! and Facebook, and then everybody else is 100,000 units probably or less. So the number of companies that really understand the network topology, the datacenter construction, the server requirements to build this public cloud infrastructure is very, very small, very small. And the number of companies that are at the same time seriously investing in the private cloud, which is not going away, and in these hybrid clouds is really just one and that's us. We are building in a compatible way private cloud infrastructure based on Windows Server, and public cloud infrastructure based on Windows Azure, and we will talk to you about that today
Server deployments are one way to compare the largest providers and much ink has been spilled speculating on who has the largest package deployments. Google has been previously estimated at around 900,000, but Microsoft claims Google is "a bit bigger than us." Facebook has copped to "hundreds of thousands" of servers, Akamai fields 127,000, and Rackspace has just under 100,000 servers as of this writing.

Ballmer is spinning the million servers as a sign of how mature and sophisticated Microsoft's cloud offerings are, but the more I think about it, the more a raw number of servers seems like a terrible way to measure the strength of a company's sophistication. It reminds me of the early 2000s, when computer enthusiasts would often launch into conversations like this:

Enthusiast: "How many fans you got in your case?"
Me: "Uh. One."
Enthusiast: "One? ONE? I have 27 Delta Black Label fans in my case. That's 162,000 RPM worth of fans!"
Me: "That's...great. How's your hearing?"
Enthusiast: "Huh?"
Me: "That's about what I thought."

A million servers could mean anything from tiny power-efficient blade servers to giant big-iron deployments. It might mean just 250,000 physical servers with four virtualized servers each, or a full million physical servers with five million virtualized environments. It is, unquestionably, a heck of a lot of servers, but what does it mean? In and of itself, not much.

Are You Being Served?

What I'd really like to know is how many of those servers are new. Microsoft aggressively talked up its new servers as part of the original Xbone launch, but, post-reversal, hasn't said anything about whether or not the Xbox Live servers it planned to deploy are still needed. Presumably they are, given that cloud rendering is supposed to be a major feature. The other question is Office 365, Microsoft's monthly extortion plan that replaces a program you owned a license for and could use in perpetuity with a product you merely rent and lose access to if you stop paying. Microsoft isn't the only company that's gone in for cloudstortion -- Adobe gets a giant gold star for this one -- but after Office for iOS launched with the grace of a dead manatee being sucked through a wood chipper and suffering a humiliating defeat for its next-generation console, I'd love to know how many of these servers are gathering dust somewhere -- or alternately, running data-gathering for the NSA.