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Purdue chooses containerized data center over colocation

For 40% less than leasing space in a colocated data center, Purdue University bought a containerized data center for its new computational cluster.

Faced with a power shortage in its existing data center, Purdue University turned to a containerized data center,...

Hewlett-Packard's Performance-Optimized Data Center, or POD, to get a massive compute cluster online in short order.

Like other containerized data centers, HP's POD comes preconfigured with all the necessary racks, cabling, power and cooling needed to stand up new data center capacity quickly, and at a fraction of the cost of building out a new facility, which some analysts estimate at $25 million for every 1 megawatt of capacity.

In Purdue's case, HP's POD also cost much less than leasing colocation space, said John Campbell, the associate vice president of academic technologies at the West Lafayette, Ind.-based university. "For 60% of the cost [of a colocation facility], we could place a POD on campus," Campbell said.

Compared with a colo, the savings came from several sources: not having to engage in a long-term lease; reduced staffing; being able to extend existing on-campus networks; and reduced power costs, thanks to the availability of power from the university's own power plant, Campbell said.

Purdue purchased a 40-foot HP POD, which it will outfit with 1,100 cores, delivered on 1U HP DL165 quad-processor six-core systems. The compute power will be used to power a new "Rothman" compute cluster that faculty will use to perform research in the areas of structural biology, nanotechnology and agronomy, to name a few.

Data center containers: Stopgap capacity?
Purchasing a data center container for additional power capacity wasn't cheaper than upgrading the university's existing data center. But a facility upgrade would have taken much longer.

"We're a public institution, and anytime you do a substantial upgrade, you have to go through the board of trustees and state approvals," and that can take upwards of a year, Campbell said. In other words, "if we had done a facility upgrade, there would have been no way to get it in place this summer."

Retrofitting the existing facility for an additional 5 megawatts of power, from 2 to 7 megawatts, will cost around $3 million, Campbell said, which the university hopes to have completed by 2012.

In the meantime, Purdue will probably purchase a second POD to accommodate yet another compute cluster. But whether Purdue continues to use the PODs once the main data center has been upgraded is up in the air, subject to how well the containers can keep up with the new ultra-dense servers that the university is buying.

"A year ago we were buying eight-core machines (dual processor, quad-cores); now we have 24 cores, still in 1U. It will be interesting to see how this 'densification' affects us" and whether the upgraded facility can gracefully take on all these compute resources, Campbell said.

Data center containers: Hot or not?
In 2007, containerized data centers burst onto the scene, with vendors including Sun Microsystems (now Oracle), HP, IBM, Rackable (now SGI), Verari and Emerson Network Power jumping in on the act. At the same time, data center containers have not been widely adopted.

IDC estimates that only 85 data center containers will ship this year, across all vendors, and that number is only expected to grow to about 140 next year. Part of the problem with the form factor is out of the vendors' control, said Michelle Bailey, IDC vice president of data center trends and strategies.

"Data center containers would have done better if the recession hadn't hit us," she said. At the same time, "data center containers have a very unique form factor, and they aren't for everyone."

Where data center containers have done well is large Web 2.0 companies that need additional capacity quickly and don't have much predictability, Bailey said. HP says it has several of these "hyperscale" customers for its POD, although it cannot publicly name them.

But HP believes Purdue's POD purchase signals a maturation of the market, said Glenn Keels, the director of service provider marketing for HP's industry-standard server group.

"We've seen an uptick in demand and utilization for the POD by a broader market," Keels said. Use of containerized data centers by large Internet service providers -- "solutions born in the tempest of the most extreme cloud environments" – gives more mainstream customers "the confidence that this is not an immature offering."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director at, or follow @aebarrett on Twitter.

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