Tech Watch Analysis: Data center containers promise easy deployment, management

Big IT vendors are pushing data center containers, aka "data centers in a box," but most customer sites aren't yet ready for the technology.

Need some excess data center capacity? Wait a minute while I drive some on over to you.

Data center in a box
Find out what solutions providers have to say about data center containers and whether they meet customers' needs.

All kidding aside, that's the scenario promised by some of the biggest vendors in the high-tech servers and storage arena -- especially as enterprises seek ways to alleviate the strain on overburdened data centers, conserve space and reduce power consumption. But the much-ballyhooed data center container approach has yet to gain much traction, except where real estate conditions are hostile to building out a traditional data center architecture.

What are data center containers?

Data center containers -- variously referred to as "data centers in a box" or "SANs in a CAN," depending on the application -- offer a preconfigured approach to expanding capacity or making the most out of limited space. Server cabinets, storage and networking equipment are stuffed into traditional metal shipping containers. That means they can get to a customer's site quickly via truck, rail, ship or cargo-transport airplanes. Among the vendors that have made commitments to these modular data center architectures are Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Rackable Systems, Sun Microsystems and Verari Systems.

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"We are still very early in the game," said Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst with The StorageIO Group in Stillwater, Minn. "Most data centers aren't equipped yet for the containers. Companies can put them on the floor, sure, but they may not have the necessary connections for these yet."

In his new book, The Green and Virtual Data Center, Schulz outlined the primary benefits of using these containers: shorter installation and implementation times (in some cases), floor space conservation and preconfigured cabling, power and cooling.
The containers are meant for really ultra-dense situations, Schulz said, and early adopters include businesses in the following industries: oil and gas exploration, entertainment and media, financial services, Internet services and telecommunications.

Containers simplify data center planning

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The modular architecture works in scenarios where a great deal of capacity is needed quickly, but real estate is limited, said Maurice Cloutier, product group marketing manager for Sun Modular Datacenter (aka Project Blackbox). One example is in higher education, where colleges and universities often must meet onerous land use restrictions. Sun has also seen early adoption in the remote regions of India, China and Russia, where the power infrastructure isn't as advanced, sophisticated or reliable as in the United States and Europe. Sun's container is weather-proofed and built to certain fire and earthquake specifications with these emerging nations in mind.
"I think the economic slowdown will further drive this market as people look for flexibility and lower-cost alternatives," Cloutier said.

Just because containers are preconfigured doesn't mean they can't be flexible, said Geoffrey Noer, vice president of product management for Rackable Systems Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif. Rackable's options include everything from small portable enclosures up to containers that support as many as 2,800 dual-socket servers.

So far, Rackable has seen the most interest from companies seeking to get a better handle on their data center cooling requirements or those that don't want to invest the time and money to build out real estate.

"If your existing data center is full, you can invest in capacity a lot faster than you can if you construct a new facility," Noer said. "If you're a company committed to a private data center, do you want to pay for four or five years extra of forecasted expansion space? You can stall these investments."

Data center containers are finding homes behind buildings that house other data center facilities, because the cooling and power connections are already available. They are also finding homes in military encampments, energy companies' exploration sites and other locations where building something permanent just isn't feasible.

"The whole industry is in its infancy," Noer said. "But we strongly believe that container-based computing will grow in private data centers."

Data center container deployments coming slowly

The vendors selling container architectures admit adoption is slow but say companies are buying. Most won't reveal names, but two Sun customers are the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in Northern California and Hansen Transmissions, a wind turbine manufacturer in Belgium that used the technology for a site in India.

Microsoft is perhaps one of the best-known corporate proponents of data center containers. The whole first floor of the software giant's new data center facility in Chicago is dedicated to accommodating containers, along with the requisite cooling, bandwidth and power connections, said Francois Ajenstat, Microsoft's director of environmental sustainability.

The main aim of going modular is to improve energy efficiency, and it will also reduce the amount of maintenance associated with data center upkeep, Ajenstat said. The container section of Microsoft's Chicago data center will carry a power usage effectiveness (PUE) of 1.2, he estimated. That compares with an average PUE of 2.5 that is associated with a typical data center, according to the Uptime Institute.
Microsoft's ultimate goal -- and Sun's as well -- is to push modularity throughout the entire data center. They're aiming to preconfigure the mechanical and electrical technology, too, which is typically where a lot of the customization comes in today. It's also one factor that lengthens data center rollouts.

"At the end of the day, it's about the requirements," Ajenstat said. "If you're looking at one type of server that you need to deploy at scale, this is a great solution."

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