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Containerized data centers remain niche

Containerized data centers aren't ready for prime time -- at least not in the near term -- say data center managers.

LAS VEGAS – IT pros think container-based data centers can fill specific, niche needs but broader acceptance of data center containers hasn't taken hold.

Three such container data centers were on display at the Gartner Data Center Conference this week, and some attendees were intrigued.

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"It's a very interesting concept; this is the first one we've looked at," said Bruce Kantor, the director of enterprise technology services for PPL Services Corp., an electric utility in Allentown, Pa. "Right now it might be [niche], but as people get more comfortable with the idea, it could grow."

His company might consider such implementations for disaster recovery, he said.

"I could plant it somewhere for backup if need be, and then I could move it if need be," he said. IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and SGI showcased data centers in a shipping container at the conference. IBM also said that several data center infrastructure vendors – Liebert, Eaton and APC among them – have supported its concept. But even Steve Sams, VP of site and facilities for IBM, said containerized data centers are not for everyone and won't be for a long time.

"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."

When containerized data centers don't work
But for some workloads, such data centers could be a fit. They're suitable, for example for military applications, where computing must be deployed quickly and portably. But Sams said that in general, he doesn't think containers are "the best way to build 320 square feet of data center."

"Ninety-nine percent of our customers are never going to install thousands of servers at a time," he said.

Chuck Corcoran, a data center manager at Google Inc., toured the IBM container data center Tuesday night and perused the other offerings as well.

"Our company was doing it a few years ago," he said. "I guess there must be some market for it. It's completely packaged, so it's nice."

During a data center summit earlier this year, Google officially revealed for the first time that it ran a container-based data center itself. And rumors have swirled that Google started building it more than five years ago, so the technology is old hat for them. As for what Google is working on now, Corcoran wouldn't say.

James Hamilton, an engineer at Amazon, has also noted that Google appears not to have gone back to the container approach, signaling there was something better, either from a performance or efficiency standpoint or both. He added that there could be a better way of building a containerized data center, which would incorporate a bare-bones facilities shell, or no shell, that used free cooling and no centralized mechanical system.

Mark Fontecchio can be reached at

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