Google, Microsoft Push Modular Data Centers

Finding Buyers

That doesn't mean there aren't any advantages, however. A container can be up and running within two or three months, eliminating lengthy building and permitting times. But if you need an instant boost in capacity, why not just go to a hosting provider, Kumar asks.

"We don't think it's going to become a mainstream solution," he says. "We're struggling to find real benefits."

Kumar sees the containers being more suited to Internet-based, "hyper-scale" companies such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft. Containerized data centers offer scalability in big chunks, if you're willing to buy more containers. But they don't offer scalability inside each container, once it has been filled, he says.

Container vendors tout various benefits, of course. Each container is almost fully self-contained, Rackable's Noer says. Chilled water, power and networking are the only things from the outside world that must be connected to each one, he says. Rackable containers, which can be fitted with as many as 22,400 processing cores in 2,800 servers, are water-tight, fitted with locks, alarms and LoJack-like tracking units. Sun's Modular Data Center can survive an earthquake -- the company made sure of that by testing it on one of the world's largest shake tables at the University of California in San Diego.

A fully-equipped Rackable ICE Cube costs several million dollars, mostly for the servers themselves, Noer says. The container pays for itself with lower electricity costs due to an innovative Rackable design that maximizes server density, Noer says.

But it's still too early to tell whether containerized data centers are the way of the future. "We're just at the cusp of broad adoption," Noer says.

Potential use cases for containers include disaster recovery, remote locations such as military bases, or big IT hosting companies that would prefer not to build brick-and-mortar data centers, Kumar says.

A TV crew that follows sporting events may want a mobile data center, says Robert Bunger, director of business development for American Power Conversion. APC doesn't sell its portable data center, but in 2004 it built one into a tractor-trailer as a proof-of-concept. It was resilient. "We pulled that trailer all over the country" for demos, Bunger notes.

But APC isn't seeing much demand, except in limited cases. For example, a business that needs an immediate capacity upgrade but is also planning to move its data center in a year might want a container because it would be easier to move than individual servers and storage boxes.

UC-San Diego bought two of Sun's Modular Data Centers. One goal is to contain the cost of storing and processing rapidly increasing amounts of data, says Tom DeFanti, principal investigator of the school's GreenLight energy efficiency research project. But it will take time to see whether the container approach is more efficient. "The whole idea is to create an experiment to see if we can get more work per watts," DeFanti says.

The Modular Data Center is not as convenient to maintain as a regular computer room, because there is so little space to maneuver inside, he says. But "It seems to me to be an extremely well-designed and thought-out system," DeFanti says. "It gives us a way of dealing with the exploding amount of scientific computing that we need to do."

Beware Vendor Lock-In

Before purchasing a containerized data center, enterprises should consider several issues related to their manageability and usefulness. Vendors often want you to fill the containers with only their servers, Kumar notes. Besides limiting flexibility at the time of purchase, this raises the question of what happens when those servers reach end-of-life. Will you need the vendor to rip out the servers and put new ones in, once again limiting your choice of technology?

"At the moment, most vendors will fill their containers only with their servers," Kumar says.

IBM, however, says it uses industry-standard racks in its portable data center, allowing customers to buy whatever technology they like. (Compare server products.) DeFanti said Sun's Modular Data Center allows him the flexibility to buy a heterogeneous mix of servers and storage. Rackable, though, steers customers toward either its own servers or IBM BladeCenter machines through a partnership with IBM.

"I think vendors are learning that people want more flexibility," DeFanti says.

Another consideration is failover capabilities, says Lee Kirby, who provides site assessments, data center designs and other services as the general manager of Lee Technologies. If one container goes down, its work must be transferred to another. Server virtualization will help provide this failover capability, and also make it easier to manage distributed containerized data centers -- an important consideration for customers who want to distribute computing power and have it reside as close to users as possible, Kirby says.

"I think it is key that the combination of virtualization and distributed infrastructure produce a container that can be out of service without impacting the application as a whole," Kirby says.

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