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Sun renames, rejiggers Project Blackbox, a modular data center

A data center in a shipping container has a new grown-up name to go along with some newly named customers.

Project Blackbox, Sun Microsystems' modular data center, has a new name and a new reference customer, signaling a new level of maturity and acceptance for the concept, an analyst said.

Today, Sun announced that the Blackbox, Initially introduced in late 2006, is now called the Sun Modular Datacenter S20. The S20 data center comes in a standard, 20-foot-long shipping container equipped with all the necessary data center amenities: cooling, power distribution, external hookups for water, air conditioning equipment and network connectivity. The product is generally available and lists at $559,000, not including professional services.

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Meanwhile, a Stanford University research group that was the first American customer of the earlier Blackbox has purchased a second unit and plans to have it in production in the next few weeks.

The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), based in Menlo Park, Calif., is a physics research organization operated by Stanford University and the U.S. Department of Energy. Chuck Boeheim, assistant director of computing for the center, said the university bought its first Blackbox last year as a way to quickly expand its brick-and-mortar data center, a 20,000-square-foot building that was running out of space, power and cooling.

"It was just speed," he said. "There was also an element of flexibility. We're often changing from one experiment to another type of experiment. The ability to add little increments of capacity as we need it is going to be important."

The ability to add little increments of capacity as we need it is going to be important.
Chuck Boeheim,
assistant director of computingStanford Linear Accelerator Center

Sun isn't the only company with a modular data center offering. American Power Conversion (APC) has its InfraStruXure Express, while Rackable Systems Inc. has its version, called Ice Cube.

Blackbox's new gravitas
Clay Ryder, president of analyst firm the Sageza Group, said renaming the Blackbox to S20 is a sign that "the product has moved beyond the skunkworks project" and into something "worthy of an official-sounding name."

"This implies some degree of marketing and product maturity as a long-term play as opposed to an example of what some clever engineers can do," he said.

Ryder added that the product's target user has begun to crystallize: data centers dealing with constraints – constraints of power, cooling, space and infrastructure. Thus the push overseas and to American markets needing extra compute capacity quickly, such as university research labs.

But whether the S20's maturity will translate into a lot of customers has yet to be seen. Darlene Yaplee, a Sun marketing vice president, could name only three customers – all overseas – other than SLAC and wouldn't say how many Blackbox or Modular Datacenter customers Sun has in total.

For its part, SLAC stuffed 252 Sun Fire x2200 servers into its first Blackbox, which it had up and running in September. It sits outside a brick-and-mortar data center that the university built about 30 years ago. Outside the building is a 4-megawatt electrical substation with power to spare, but getting that juice into the building would have taken time and crunched space, as the company would have had to build a new transformer room inside the data center to step down the 480-volt (V) power from the substation to the 208-V power the data center room needs. With the Blackbox, SLAC could plug it in from the outside.

Cooling was another issue.

"When the building was designed, we only had an 8-inch cold-water pipe laid to it," Boeheim said. "For us to bring another chiller and another pipe in to take the heat out would be even worse."

When Sun first announced the Blackbox, critics worried about security. But Boeheim said that SLAC's Blackbox is tucked into an area that a forklift would have difficulty accessing, has cooling pipes attached to it and is bolted down for earthquake stabilization. "It wouldn't be easy to just pick it up and walk away with it," he said. "I would guess that guards would notice it going out the gate."

Since SLAC was a beta customer, it was able to suggest improvements to the original Blackbox design. For example, the container comes with a device similar to a tire jack for lifting and removing racks of servers. SLAC needed one that could handle more weight. SLAC also didn't like how it needed a special tool to open the container's access doors and petitioned Sun to redesign the exterior utility access panels so they're better shielded from outside elements.

Even with the improvements to the Sun S20, Boeheim still sees a role for the brick-and-mortar data center.

"I think it will be a mixture," he said. "[The Blackbox] is a bit cramped, so when we have to time to build something that's got a few thousand feet of expansion space, we'll probably take that avenue as well."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Mark Fontecchio, News Writer. You can also check out our Server Specs blog.

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