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Sun, Rackable mobile data centers still raise eyebrows

Rackable Systems and Sun Microsystems are rolling out new mobile containerized data centers, but concerns persist regarding their durability and energy efficiency.

Milpitas, Calif.-based Rackable Systems Inc. unveiled another mobile data center box last month called Integrated Concentro Environment (ICE) Cube, and Sun Microsystems Inc. plans to unveil an upgraded version of its Project Blackbox next month. But a year into the experiment, IT professionals are still leery of the concept.

For more on mobile data centers:
Rackable Systems introduces portable data center

Sun Blackbox; a data center Winnebago

The idea behind a containerized data center is simple enough. "ICE Cube is ideal when a data center has run out of space and power and they don't want to spend $100 to $500 million building a new data center," said Colette LaForce, Rackable vice president of marketing. "They can roll this data center out quickly and plug it into a power source anywhere. A lot of businesses want to have a remote data center for disaster recovery purposes, or they want to be close to their customers."

I like the idea of Project Blackbox but wonder how much thought has gone
into the environmental problems a container encounters.

Tom Rogowski,
West Coast fleet managercontainer leasing company

Further, a mobile data center enables companies to access alternative energy sources like solar and hydroelectric power, is recyclable at the end of its life, and can reduce cooling and air-handler power costs by up to 80% over traditional brick-and-mortar data centers, Rackable reports.

But while some IT professionals see the wisdom of mobile data centers, others fear the consequences of moving data centers and leaving them unmanned.

Responding to a blog by Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz on Project Blackbox, India-based blogger Sanjay Balram said Sun's mobile data center is perfect for companies in developing countries. "As India transitions to a developed country and grapples with infrastructure problems, this can help us surmount many of them," Balram said.

The detractors weigh in
Others see a more limited use. Data centers in shipping containers are "fine as short-term Band-Aids for disaster, event-based service, and remote area use, or combinations of any/all of the above," said Chuck Goolsbee, VP of Digital Forest Inc., a Seattle, Wash.-based Web hosting and colocation provider.

"I just don't see any reason to build long-term solutions around them, though," Goolsbee said. "They are just too risky, especially if left unattended."

Those in the shipping industry also have doubts about using a container as a data center. Tom Rogowski, internationally certified container inspector and West Coast fleet manager for a container leasing company, questioned their reliability.

"I like the idea of Project Blackbox but wonder how much thought has gone into the environmental problems a container encounters," Rogowski said. "A normal steel container will get to well over 120 degrees inside in the summer. I hate to see how hot a black one will get," he warned.

"Containers are moved primarily on ships, and handling damage is common. What are you going to do when that container receives a good dent or, worse, a cut? Repairs to the container are going to necessitate removing all the equipment. Computers don't do well around welding torches."

Not surprisingly, vendors dismissed concerns about containers overheating and getting damaged. "Solar load can be a significant source of heat but it's easily handled by ICE Cube's cooling system as long as the solar impact is taken into consideration when sizing the chiller," said Rackable's Collette LaForce.

"If a particular customer is interested in being as power efficient as possible, we recommend keeping the container in the shade," she said. "Heat exchange via ambient air outside the container isn't as much of an issue. Even in hot climates, there will still be more days where it's cooler outside than our water loop temp -- at night, in winter, etc."

As for dents and other possible damage, the solution is simple: Be careful. LaForce puts it this way:

We assume people will be careful with their ICE Cube mobile computing containers given the value of the cargo inside. The scenarios where someone could actually pierce the skin of the container during our usual delivery procedures are very small. If it actually happened though, the repair is quite easy -- just remove the servers around the area of damage and repair. You would not have to remove all the equipment, because ICE Cube is designed for easy serviceability with a wide central work aisle and our half-depth systems lining the inside of the container for easy removal and maintenance.

Rackable's data center wheel estate
Rackable Systems' first mobile data center, Concentro, was announced in March, but the new ICE Cube adds new cooling and sizing options. ICE Cube holds up to 1,400 of Rackable Systems' rack-mount DC powered servers or storage systems in a single 40-foot-by-8-foot shipping container for total compute capacity of up to 11,200 cores, or storage capacity of up to 4.1 petabytes. ICE Cube can be deployed in 20-foot or 40-foot-container sizes. It also has wireless Global Positioning System tracking and alarm and security protection. And while ICE Cube is designed for Rackable Systems' DC-powered proprietary servers and storage, third-party networking or legacy storage can be fitted in the facility, LaForce said.

"The ICE Cube offers increased flexibility for the configurations that can go in the box, and we can deploy a totally customized trailer in 90 days or less," LaForce said. LaForce could not name customers using the older Concentro but said a large Internet company has acquired one.

Project Blackbox
Blackbox was introduced last October, and the company will unveil a tweaked, updated version sometime this month, said Darlene Yaplee, Sun vice president of marketing for Project Blackbox. Yaplee could not give specific details of what has changed since last year's introduction.

The company took the black containerized data centers on a worldwide tour and has publicly implemented two of the 20-foot mobile data centers so far: one in Russia and one in the U.S.

Fortune 500 companies and larger as well as government agencies have shown the greatest interest in Project Blackbox, Yaplee said.

"The primary need for this is that people are running out of space. The second interest is in mobility to give flexibility as people become more interested in efficiency," Yaplee said.

Another issue is power consumption at data center sites. On his blog, Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz said that most data centers run out of power capacity long before they fill up. "In a container, we go in the opposite direction -- with plenty of power and chilling, we jam systems to a multiple of the density level and really scrimp on space," he wrote. "And it can run anywhere, in the basement, the parking garage or on a rooftop."

Sun and Rackable aren't the only companies offering data centers to go. InfraStruXure Express from West Kingston, R.I.-based American Power Conversion Corp. (APC) has been around for a few years now. The mobile data center is equivalent to a 2,500-foot data center. It is based on the APC InfraStruXure architecture for network-critical physical infrastructure (NCPI) which integrates power, cooling, rack, management and services.

No one from APC was available to answer questions about the offering.

Some November 2005 reports indicate that Mountain View, Calif.-based Google Inc. toyed with the data-center-in-a-box idea for internal purposes. The company reportedly explored ways to stuff the most CPUs, storage, memory and power support into a 20-foot or 40-foot container that could be moved by tractor-trailer rigs and dropped anywhere Google owns access to fiber. Google did not respond to questions about the data center.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

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