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Cisco bets on surge of interest in data center containers

If Cisco builds a data center container, will customers come?

Cisco Systems is diving into containerized data centers -- modular data centers built inside ready-to-go shipping containers. Such data-centers-in-a-box appear to be gaining traction in areas like Web 2.0 supercomputing and military applications, but have made little  headway in traditional enterprises, experts say.

Containerized data centers debuted in 2006 with Sun Microsystems’ Project Black Box. Now, Cisco is the latest vendor to enter the modular data center fray this week with its Containerized Data Center, or CDC.

Other vendors to offer containerized data centers include Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM, Dell Data Center Solutions, SGI (formerly Rackable), and i/o Data Centers. Only the Sun model, now under Oracle, is no longer actively marketed, although it reportedly can be made to order.

Like some of its predecessors, Cisco’s CDC is based on a 40 x 9.5 x 8-foot weatherized ISO container that provides up to 16 racks, with up to 25 kW of power per rack. The containers can be stacked two-high or placed side by side. Inside, the racks are cooled with chilled water and the container features a low PUE of 1.25. The container can be leased, reducing upfront capital expenditures, and can be deployed within 120 days of ordering.

Cisco differentiates the CDC from other modular data center offerings by emphasizing management and by providing granular rack-level cooling, said Michelle Bailey, IDC vice president for data center trends. The CDC also addresses some concerns about the security and serviceability of data center containers; for example, by supplying network and power from underneath the container (rather than from the side) and by placing racks on moveable floor casters.

Data center container candidates?
One promising market for containerized data centers is the military, said Greg Giaquinto, senior analyst at Forecast International, an aerospace and defense consulting firm in Newtown, Conn.

“They’re more cost-effective than a traditional brick-and-mortar data center, they’re quick to get into the hands of the consumer, and they’re transportable,” Giaquinto said. “If you’re an agency that does disaster relief -- or the military -- they’re a perfect, perfect fit.”

The popularity of containerized data centers could well increase in the coming years given the current “belt-tightening” climate at the Department of Defense, he added. “If I were Cisco, I’d be knocking on some government doors,” he added.

Giaquinto said NASA is known to have deployed containers. Google and Microsoft both use containers, and in supercomputing circles, Purdue University deployed an HP POD last summer to build out a large high-performance compute (HPC) cluster.

But beyond niche markets like these, Cisco may be disappointed by how many CDC units it succeeds in selling.

“It’s a very, very small market,” said IDC’s Bailey, who estimates that only 144 data center containers will ship in 2011. That number stands to more than double in 2012 to 385 units, but Bailey insisted that this represents an exceedingly small portion of overall data center buildouts.

Indeed, the Uptime Institute sees very little interest in containers from its clients, said Vince Renaud, vice president and managing principal of the data center consulting firm. In a survey of data center owners, only 5% said they plan to pursue containers.

“There’s a lot to be said about brick and mortar,” Renaud said. “They’re tried and true, people are familiar with them.” In contrast, many data center owners view the prospect of a 40-foot ISO container as “a short-term thing designed to get you over a hump.”

The question, therefore, becomes, if the market for containerized data centers is so small, why are so many vendors pushing them?

“It’s not about the container, it’s about what goes in them,” Bailey said -- notably, servers, storage and networking equipment.

Indeed, while Cisco’s CDC is hardware agnostic on paper, Cisco’s intention is to fill it with equipment from Cisco and its partners, said Keith Siracuse, Cisco product marketing engineer. 

“It can take legacy equipment, but obviously that’s not what we’re trying to sell,” he said. “We want to push Cisco and Cisco-partner gear,” he said, like VCE Vblocks and NetApp FlexPods.

The Cisco CDC is available now and made to customer specifications. Cisco declined to cite pricing.

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