Outside the Box
How Sun Plans to Sell Project Blackbox
MENLO PARK, Calif.-Sun Microsystems is so eager to become a larger player in data storage and data centers that it threw away the book this week regarding the way it usually announces new products.
Normally, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based IT hardware/software giant waits until just before a product is ready to go to work in the marketplace, then introduces it in a splashy hoo-haw event. And it almost always makes available a few customer-clients that have used-or at least tested-the new product in some kind of production environment and can talk about how wonderful the thing is.
Well, the splashy event was staged, but this time the product-a revolutionary new portable data center-wont be ready for prime time until mid-2007. And no Sun customers have used, or even seen, this new thing; its come straight out of R&D to the parking lot here in this Silicon Valley suburb.
On Oct. 17, Sun unveiled Project Blackbox, which combines storage, computing, and network infrastructure hardware and software-along with high-efficiency power and liquid cooling-into modular units based on standard 20-by-8-by-8-foot shipping containers.
Each Blackbox holds up to 250 Sun Fire blade servers (standard 19-inch-wide size) and provides up to 1.5 petabytes of disk storage, 2 petabytes of tape storage, and up to 7TB of random access memory.
A fully configured Blackbox weighs under 20,000 pounds, has front and rear doors, seven service access points inside, and cutting-edge cooling and power distribution equipment.
"We were coming along so well on this project, and getting so excited about it, that we didnt want to wait any longer on getting the news out," David Douglas, Suns so-called vice president of eco-responsibility and director of the Blackbox Project, told eWEEK.
Isnt a Blackbox, in effect, a kind of "new" mainframe? After all, everything a computing system needs is harbored in this one big container-not terribly unlike the big machines IBM used to make 40 and 50 years ago.
"This is no mainframe. This is the future of computing, and the future is not a mainframe," the no-nonsense Jonathan Schwartz, Suns CEO and president, told eWEEK.
Sun hopes to sell these to all kinds of vertical markets, including oil and gas exploration, manufacturing, financials, health care, military, government-you name the market.
The idea of a walk-through, 20-by-8-by-8 box that handles an entire business in one room is rather easy to grasp, even for the more technically challenged among us.
Sun showed some artist-conception drawings of how these portable data centers could be used-airlifted to oil rigs and to positions atop tall buildings, stacked in literal data warehouses for larger companies, or shipped to Third World countries to help in health care field work.
They can also be used for quick Web 2.0 company build-outs, advanced military applications, and in developing nations and areas that use alternative energy sources.
These things are likely to be pricey, but Sun isnt ready to talk about that yet.
"We havent even given that a thought at this point," Douglas said. "We just wanted to get it up and running and show everybody what it can do. These things are like portable super computers-and the supercomputers we have now arent very portable."
The new portable data center was something that Schwartz, whos been in his new job all of 142 days, himself helped cook up.
"I work on special projects for Jonathan, and this was one we really wanted to see get done quickly," Douglas said.
"We had all the elements in-house for this; it was just a matter of coordination. Its been in the planning stages for two years, and Ive been on the project for only about six months."
Outside the Box
Sun has long claimed that data centers are too complicated, costly, power-hungry, and difficult to cool and manage. Not many data center managers would disagree.
To its credit, Sun has been proactively looking "outside the box" for new approaches to this problem, which grows with the increasing amount of data needing to be stored.
It turns out that the opposite of "outside the box" happened.
"Sun thinks way inside the box for a new datacenter solution," quipped Charles King, principal of Pund-IT Research in Hayward, Calif., in a headline he would have written.
"At one level, the mobile datacenter concept sounds a bit goofy," King wrote in his weekly newsletter. "Sure, they can build it, but does the companys list of potential commercial opportunities for Project Blackbox hold water? Yes and no.
"There is growing hype around Web 2.0 startups (especially after last weeks Google/YouTube deal), but few are garnering enough ready cash (through VCs or buy-outs) to afford Suns radical new solution."
The same might be said about developing nations and alternative energy-(i.e., solar and wind power) rich areas, King said.
"However, the advanced military operations, oil and gas exploration that Sun is touting, along with other sectors that leverage high performance computing (HPC) solutions could offer some real possibilities for Project Blackbox deployments, particularly if customers have generous funding," King said.
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