Today, in its attempt to broaden the appeal of data centers in a box, Hewlett-Packard released a smaller version of its Performance-Optimized Datacenter (POD), a containerized data center.
The new POD is basically the old one sliced in half -- it's 20 feet long instead of 40. The shipping container can now fit 10 50U racks of IT equipment instead of 22, a change that HP says makes it more cost effective for smaller businesses.
But claims by Hewlett-Packard Co. that containerized data centers can appeal to a more mainstream market haven't been borne out yet by its own numbers. The Palo Alto, Calif., company announced its first, 40-foot POD in July 2008. Jean Brandau, a POD marketing manager, wouldn't say how many have sold, but put the figure in the "double digits."
So while high-profile companies like Microsoft and Google use container data centers, PODs are not selling like hotcakes.Noisy, heavy, clunky:
Even adopters of the technology, such as Brewster Kahle at the Internet Archive, recognize the current downsides. The Internet Archive parked a Sun Modular Datacenter on its Santa Clara, Calif., campus. It includes 60 Sun Fire x4500 servers running Solaris 10. Each server is connected to 48 hard drives with 1 TB of storage.
"I think some of the things people are starting to work on are getting the power down and reducing air conditioning," Kahle said. "After you've finished with the energy issues, they should work on making [container data centers] quiet and pretty, because they're neither of those things."
Kahle added that simpler power connections and the ability to accept outside air for cooling would be a big plus.
Weight is another factor, at least with the 40-foot versions, Brandau said. A fully stocked 40-foot POD weighs 50 tons, about the same as a Boeing 737. That's a big number, especially since one of the touted benefits of container data centers is their modularity and portability.
"Over the road system in the U.S. this isn't an issue, but in more remote regions weight can become a problem," Brandau said. "Being able to transport it was a key requirement [for] some customers."
Mike Manos, formerly the general manager of Microsoft's data center services division when that company began building its container-based data center in Chicago, wrote recently that, when used improperly, containerized data centers aren't cost-effective.
"Today you purchase containers in terms of total power draw for the container itself," he wrote. "This ultimately means that you want to optimize your server environments for the load you are using."
This capacity planning matters more for containers than in traditional data centers, Manos said, because the up-front cost for containers is higher. Therefore, not using all the power the container allocates is a bigger waste, especially when the container costs $600,000: the list price of the new HP POD. And that price tag is just for the shell, not the IT equipment deployed inside.
Even those who sell containerized data centers aren't confident about their general appeal. IBM has its Portable Modular Data Center (PMDC), but Steve Sams, the vice president of site and facilities for IBM, conceded that containerized data centers aren't for everyone.
"Most major companies conclude that data center containers are not for them, and I think they're right," he said. "I never think it's going to be a huge market."
Mark Fontecchio can be reached at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.