Containerized Data Centers Boost Cloud Storage

Containerized data centers are helping some companies create cloud computing platforms

June 5, 2008

5 Min Read
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As budgets shrink and data center requirements expand, many organizations are trucking in help -- literally.

Rackable Systems, Sun, and Verari are all at the center of a small but apparently growing market for portable data centers delivered in shipping containers -- a trend goosed by Sun with its Project Blackbox (now redubbed the Sun Modular Datacenter S20) late in 2006.

In more recent news, suppliers are claiming rapid uptake of their box-car solutions, particularly among would-be providers of SaaS, who require cloud computing platforms to supply their services.

Rackable Systems, for instance, has been cited by at least one financial analyst as poised to supply a handful of key cloud computing customers with trucked-in data centers: "We continue to believe the company is preparing to support a ramp of containerized data center orders during the second half the calendar year," wrote Tom Curlin of RBC Capital Markets in a note yesterday. "We believe the initial surge is specifically intended for Yahoo, and perhaps Amazon, whereas the Microsoft data center opportunity has yet to be awarded. We believe [Rackable] CEO Barrenechea is devoting a considerable amount of his time to the MSN opportunity, as the cumulative size of the order could be more than $200 million."

Curlin is referring to Microsoft's new containerized data center campaign. In Northlake, Ill. (near Chicago), for instance, Redmond is in the process of installing over 200 disparate containers on the first floor of a new $500 million data center. The data center boxes -- customized from suppliers as-yet unknown -- are earmarked for Microsoft's own cloud, which in turn supports services like Windows Live, Xblox Live, Office Live, Hotmail, MSN Video, HealthVault, Hosted Messaging & Collaboration, and FlexGo, to name just a few.In a talk early last month, Debra Chrapaty, corporate VP of Global Foundation Services at Microsoft, gave some jaw-dropping storage requirements for these services: Live Search, she said, handles 2.1 billion queries per month for an index that contains over 20 billion documents, 400 million images, and 7 million "instant answers." The containers, called CBlox, will help expand compute and storage resources for this level of activity much faster and more cheaply than it would be possible to do by building a whole new data center, she said.

The figure Chrapaty gave for building a large data center was in the hundreds of millions. In contrast, containerized data centers typically start in the $500,000 range -- though the vendors are cagey about actual prices.

Containers also seem greener than their building-bound counterparts. For one thing, they take up less space: Microsoft claims the CBlox containers in its Northlake data center hold 11 times the number of servers a conventional data center with over 400,000 servers would hold. Sun claims its Modular Datacenter takes up one-eighth of the space of a typical data center of equivalent capacity, while cutting cooling costs 40 percent.

There are power claims, too: Verari's Forest Container requires 400,000 watts, which the vendor says is 110 percent more efficient than regular data centers.

Of course, these are vendor-supplied figures that remain unproven. But some early adopters seem pleased. "Sun MD allowed us to not only solve for our growing compute demands almost immediately, but UMCN has also gained significant cost savings in not having to power up an additional datacenter," said John van de Loo, services managers at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre (UMCN) in the Netherlands, in a statement.To Page 2

All the vendors insist the market is growing. Rackable isn't saying whether it's being evaluated for inclusion in Microsoft's plans for containerized data centers. But the company is pitching its ICE Box for similar operations and projects that 20 to 50 containers will ship by the end of this year.

Rackable is also planning to double the amount of compute and storage contained in each 20- or 40-foot container. For instance, today, the maximum configuration of a 40-foot container includes 1,400 servers or 7 Pbytes of storage -- all based on Rackable's equipment. Within the next couple of months, that measurement will double, and Rackable will allow other vendors' gear to be incorporated into its containers.

By way of comparison, Microsoft's customized CBlox containers house between 1,000 and 2,000 servers -- about 440,000 servers across all 220-odd containers, which are parked on the first floor of the new data center building.

Sun Modular Datacenters (MDs) house up to 2,240 server cores and up to 3 Pbytes of storage via Sun Fire X4500 "Thumper" servers.Verari is also in the game, boasting a new 40-foot Forest container that houses up to 1,400 servers, 11.5 Pbytes of storage, and supports other vendors' compute and storage wares as well as its own.

Support of third-party wares could be an important differentiator in the future. "I think the vendor-neutral implementations will have more lasting appeal as long as they get good support," states Rich Ptak of Ptak, Noel & Associates. "The concept of a modular datacenter -- pre-packaged, pre-inspected, and ready to go -- it's a cost-effective solution that should be very attractive for companies setting up or, given the right circumstances, expanding an existing data center."

Containerized data centers have generated more negative speculation in various press and analyst outlets. At least one proponent, Michael Manos, senior director of Microsoft Data Center Services, took apart various arguments against containers in a recent blog on May 12.

Meanwhile, containerized data centers have caught the imagination of the IT public, and videos of them have cropped up online. Here are links to a few:

FOREST containerRackable Systems ICE Cube ContainerSun Modular Datacenter S20Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Byte and Switch's editors directly, send us a message.

  • Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)

  • Ptak Noel & Associates

  • Rackable Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: RACK)

  • RBC Capital Markets

  • Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: JAVA)

  • Verari Systems Inc.0

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