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Sun Black box: A data center Winnebago

Today Sun Microsystems will introduce the first prefabricated data center. The prototype, dubbed "Sun Black Box," is fully configured inside a standard shipping container.

MENLO PARK, Calif -- Sun Microsystems Inc. is literally rolling out a new data center design model (Sun Black Box) during an event at its corporate campus today. Executives introduced a prototype for a prefabricated data center, complete with servers, networking equipment and chilled water cooling.

The product, dubbed Project Black Box, is housed in a standard metal shipping container -- 20 feet long, eight feet wide and eight feet tall. A fully loaded system can house about 250 single unit rack servers.

Companies that wish to use the prefabricated data centers can simply roll them up to their buildings and plug them in -- water chillers, AC power and backup generators not included.

More on Sun Microsystems
Sun Blackbox photos on the SearchDataCenter blog

Water cooling takes center stage at Sun event

Sun thumbed its nose at using chilled water in the past and chided competitors IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), which began marketing water cooling technologies last year. Both the IBM Rear Door Heat Xchanger and the HP MCS systems radiate water at the rack level to help cool densely packed components, much in the same way as the new Sun system.

Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz hyped the launch as the Death of yesterday's Data Center in his blog last week. But in actuality, the product is directed at a more focused market -- customers that need rapid data center deployment.

Sun is currently considering three generic configurations:

  • Web 2.0 in a box: This is designed for instant Web tier build out. One day you're a startup with a server closet at a colocation facility. The next day Google is trying to buy you. Instead of investing in a brick-and-mortar facility, you can have 120 Sun Fire T2000s (or 240 Sun Fire T1000s) dropped off at your doorstep.
  • Portable HPC: According to Sun, one Black Box can host a configuration that would place it among the world's top 200 fastest supercomputers. This type of setup would be of use in oil exploration, seismic modeling or military deployment.
  • Disk farm in a box: Sun said one storage-centric Black Box can provide up to 2 petabytes (PB) of storage.

Analysts were impressed by the ingenuity of the idea but wary of its success in practice.

"It addresses real pointed issues in data center construction and maintenance, considering facility costs," said Charles King, principal analyst at Hayward, Calif., Pund-IT. But King was concerned with security issues. Can somebody tow this away? Hack into the metal container with a torch?

That specific question came up during a pre-event call with Sun's chief marketing officer, Anil Gadre. Gadre said that if a customer was concerned about someone physically hacking into the metal sheeting of the data center, the Black Box was not the product for them.

But experts agreed that most businesses would share that concern.

Despite any hang ups, Gordon Haff of Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc. applauded Sun's willingness to experiment.

"It's a first step in looking at new ways to do rapid server deployment," Haff said. "If you don't start experimenting, you're never going to get there. Sun is still figuring out what many of the details are going to be, which doesn't make it uninteresting."

While the systems are designed with Sun's servers in mind, Gadre said there was no reason why Sun couldn't include other manufacturers' computers if customers wanted them.

One reporter on the call asked, "What about a Superdome?"

Gadre said he was thinking Dell Inc. pizza boxes. "But we'll consider the Superdome," he said, laughing.

Availability: A customer could order a Black Box today and have Sun start building one. The turnaround, depending on what's inside it, could be a few weeks or less.

Gadre didn't get into pricing on the call, but said the outer shell is a total commodity, and the servers inside are Sun's standard gear. "We're looking to sell volume," Gadre said.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, Site Editor

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