Portable data centers contained inside standard 20- or 40-foot-long freight shipping containers have been adopted by tech-savvy companies like Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc. in the past few years to quickly expand their operations without having to enlarge or replace existing buildings.
These "data centers-in-a-box" are being offered by vendors including Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Silicon Graphics International (SGI) to fill needs for more computing power without requiring new data center construction.
So are other businesses and organizations following the lead of Microsoft and Google to use these self-contained data center add-ons? How are they working out?
Meeting data center growth demands
Two users, the San Francisco-based non-profit Internet Archive, which maintains a huge public archive of digital content from the Internet since 1996, and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, a research group at Stanford University in Menlo Park, Calif., say that using the densely packed, containerized data centers made it far easier and faster for them to expand their computing capabilities without the expense and complications of building projects and needed land development approvals.
Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive, said the idea for moveable, add-on data centers inside shipping containers is originally credited to Bruce Baumgart, a technical support engineer at the Archive. "We came up with the idea for this when we got tired of building more data centers," Kahle said. "We needed a way to solve our constant needs to expand our data centers." The group adds about 1 PB of new archived data per year, requiring lots of additional storage capacity.
This past March, the Internet Archive got its first such container -- a Sun Modular Data Center – and is using it to extend the life of its traditional San Francisco-based facility by moving much of its archiving capabilities to the Sun unit.
"It's been great," Kahle said. "I wouldn't be hesitant to use more of them."
However, some refinements could improve future units, he said, including lower energy consumption, simpler connections for power outlets and fewer requirements for costly and complicated air conditioning hookups. "It would be easier if it didn't require AC and if they could use open air from outside where they sit, through filters and vents."
Andy Bezella, the senior systems administrator for the Archive, said the unit is remotely located on Sun's Santa Clara, Calif., campus and includes 60 Sun Fire X4500 servers running Solaris 10. Each server is connected to 48 1 TB hard drives for storage, providing far more storage in a much smaller space than in the Archive's existing brick-and-mortar data center. "It's working flawlessly so far," Bezella said.
The SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, which is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy, had similar reasons for bringing in two Sun units for its research work into the creation of the universe, said Dr. Richard Mount, head of scientific computing at the lab.
"We were facing continuously rising demands for the amount of computing power required by our experimental programs," Mount said. About six years ago, the lab's existing data center physically ran out of cooling capacity, requiring major upgrades that took two years to design, approve and build due to slow government procurement processes, he said. But future expansions would be needed more quickly -- in months rather than years -- so containerized data centers were considered as an option.
"They lived up to their promise of being installed and configured much faster than anything we could have brought into our data center," Mount said. The lab acquired and brought in the first-ever concept unit from Sun several years ago, before Sun began offering them for sale, Mount said. It was placed into the lab's parking lot and needed cooling system plumbing and electrical connections, as well as concrete support pads. A second unit was later added.
Each 20-foot-long portable data center cost about $300,000, plus another $300,000 each for installation and connections, he said.
Drawbacks to data centers in a box
While Sun's modular data centers are in 20-foot-long containers, similar systems from HP and SGI use 40-foot-long containers. A 40-foot-long data center from HP lists for about $1.5 million, according to a spokesman, and is equivalent in capacity and computing power to a 5,000-square-foot brick-and-mortar data center. HP will offer a 20-foot-long version in the future.
One drawback to using the containers, Mount said, is that maintenance work is more complicated because the structures are densely packed with equipment. "That's not a large problem because they don't have to get inside too often," he said.
One other problem is that the racks won't accept all servers due to space limitations, he said. When the second unit arrived, they were forced to use some Sun servers they already had rather than new Dell servers they purchased, because the Dell units were an inch too long for the racks. "That was not appreciated," Mount said.
In general, however, the containerized data centers have worked out well for the lab, he said. "We have considered approaches quite seriously that would mean acquiring six more of these as an option in the future," Mount said. "There are no issues that would argue against that possibility."
Steve Schuchart, a data center analyst with Current Analysis Inc. in Sterling, Va., said that portable data centers will have more and more uses in the future for businesses that need expanded data center capacity quickly.
"Some organizations occasionally have the need for a local data center and this is an alternative that they can look at," Schuchart said.
Containerized data centers can be used as a disaster recovery option if a business has been destroyed in a natural disaster, he said, and they can also be used if a business doesn't have the land or can't get the needed permits for a data center construction or expansion project.
"I think it's a useful concept," he said. "I think it has its place. But do I think that IT departments are going to go to this wholesale? No."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer who worked as a staff reporter for Computerworld.com from 2000 to 2008. He spends his spare time working on a book about an unheralded member of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and watching classic Humphrey Bogart movies. Follow him on Twitter @TechManTalking.