Data Centres In a Box: Really?

Data Centres In a Box: Really?

The container-based model, which is still in its infancy, allows companies of all sizes to locate their data centres anywhere there is power, cooling and a network connection

It could be the largest appliance available for the data centre to date.

Two companies have separately announced the availability of a preconfigured, self-contained data centre that can instantly add up to 1200 servers and 3.5 petabytes of storage to your network and, the manufacturers claim, significantly decrease your energy bills.

Rackable Systems and Sun Microsystems each revealed their "data centre in a box" concept earlier this year. Rackable's 40-foot Concentro and Sun's 20-foot Project Blackbox feature racks of servers and storage stationed in a shipping container.

The container-based model, which is still in its infancy, allows companies of all sizes to locate their data centres anywhere there is power, cooling and a network connection. Analysts say this could be a godsend for those struggling to deal with the high cost of energy and lack of real estate in densely populated areas.

Neither vendor has any customers that are yet willing or able to talk about their deployments, so it's early going for this concept, without any proven ROI. Sun revealed that its first customer, Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre, plans to use Project Blackbox to "rapidly expand its high-performance computing and data centre capabilities for its physics and astrophysics research".

Meanwhile, Rackable says its first Concentro customer is a "leading Internet company" that it refuses to name.

Analysts give the idea high marks, though.

"This gives you the ability to add a big chunk of processing power and storage without the headache of having to figure out how to design a data centre from the ground up," says Andreas Antonopoulos, a senior partner at US-based consultancy Nemertes Research.

In fact, the containers are designed to literally be plug and play. "It's best to think about these as a large version of a network appliance. You assume they've configured everything from the cable and cooling optimally so you can just plug it in," Antonopoulos says.

While Rackable populates its container with its own servers, Sun offers users the ability to mix and match Sun servers with other platforms. "These are the same rack systems and servers you would use in a data centre. The only difference is that they've deployed in a shipping container instead of a building," says George Hamilton, director of enterprise infrastructure at US analyst firm Yankee Group Research.

Both companies say their products offer organizations a lower upfront capital expenditure as opposed to building a data centre from the ground up. While Sun says its pricing varies depending on the blend of servers and storage, Rackable says its offering starts at $US2 million to $US3 million fully populated, versus $US20 million or even more for a new data centre.

Sun is aiming Project Blackbox at a number of industries, including airlines, manufacturing, oil and gas, telecommunications, media and entertainment, and education.

For its part, Rackable is also targeting large companies with ever-expanding data server and storage needs.

Conor Malone, director of data centre solutions at Rackable, says corporations and data hosting providers that have reached capacity at their buildings are prime candidates for containers. For instance, a financial services firm in the heart of New York City might place a container on the rooftop as an extension to its data centre. "A lot of campuses are built in such a way that they misestimated what floor space they'd need. With Concentro, you can put an incredible amount of compute technology in a small footprint," he says.

The mobility is also a plus. Darlene Yaplee, Sun's vice president of marketing and business operations for Project Blackbox, says the containers require only a water supply and chiller for cooling and a building grid or gas-powered generator for power.

She says this simplicity makes the product attractive to government agencies and companies that are looking for ways to mobilize their data centre infrastructures. For example, a government relief agency could roll one of the data centre containers into a disaster-stricken area to support the rebuilding of infrastructure. Oil companies could use and reuse the containers on oil rigs to conduct seismic modelling. And the military could add enormous compute power to the battlefield.

Yankee's Hamilton says the containers offer two big benefits: getting data centres closer to inexpensive power sources and closer to customers. "You no longer need huge, monolithic data centres that are huge power drains," he says.

Instead, companies can place the containers close to inexpensive and "green" power sources such as hydroelectric power plants, Hamilton says.

The location flexibility can also help speed applications. "Data centres used to be collocated at the carriers' points of presence," he says. But with 40 percent of the workforce going mobile, companies need a different approach to their data centre planning. With the containers, IT groups can easily put data centres near their users around the world and see application performance gains, Hamilton says.

Sun also claims that Project Blackbox can be up and running in one-tenth the time it takes to design, build and deploy a traditional data centre.

Bottom-line boost

Sun's Yaplee says the containers are energy savers even without being near green power sources. She estimates that users will immediately see an average of 20 percent in energy cost reductions compared with traditional data centres.

"Project Blackbox has an innovative water-cooled design and dense form factor that enables it to cool more efficiently and effectively than a traditional data centre," she says. She adds that water cooling is more efficient than air cooling and that Project Blackbox, which can support up to 1000 x64 cores or 2 petabytes of storage, can run a 200-kilowatt compute load in only 160 square feet (15 square metres). "A typical data centre running the same load would be four times as large. That's four times as much empty space that would have to be cooled," she says.

Both Sun and Rackable create efficient power and cooling within the boxes themselves.

Malone says Concentro, which can house up to 1200 servers or 3.5 petabytes of storage, leverages piped water cooling and DC power. Fans draw air through radiators between each rack and through the servers. He calls it a very efficient system that can dramatically reduce cooling costs compared with a traditional data centre. He adds that the next generation of Concentro will be even more advanced without needing water.

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