IBM, HP, Others Report Growing Interest in Mobile Data Centers

Over the past few years, since Sun Microsystems first unveiled its Project Blackbox, top OEMs-including Dell, HP, IBM and SGI-have rolled out their own versions of containerized, mobile data centers. The containers are designed to help such businesses as Web 2.0 companies and hosting facilities quickly scale their compute capabilities, while giving enterprises an option for such areas as temporary computing power and disaster recovery. An IDC analyst says that interest in the mobile data centers is high, but the global recession is holding down demand. IDC expects the market to grow over the next few years once the economy rebounds.

When co-location company i/o Data Centers cuts the ribbon on its new 538,000-square-foot data center June 25 in downtown Phoenix, included inside the facility will be an ICE Cube containerized data center from SGI.

The 40-foot mobile data center was ordered by an i/o Data Centers customer that opted for SGI's offering rather than a more traditional data center setup, said Anthony Wanger, president and founder of i/o Data Centers. Other customers also are looking in that direction.

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"I have a number of them asking, -Can you support a Cube?'" Wanger said.

Mobile data centers have been around in one form or another for years, but got a boost in 2006 when Sun Microsystems introduced its Project Blackbox, the first such containerized facility from a major OEM.

Since then, others have joined the fray, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, SGI and Verari Systems. All have reported interest-and some sales-from customers in the mobile data centers as ways of quickly and cheaply adding needed computing power. They also fit in well with the move toward more modular data center designs, particularly among service providers and Web 2.0 companies.

The offerings are essentially standard shipping containers-either 20 or 40 feet long-that hold the data center infrastructure, from servers to networking to storage devices, and can also include power and cooling systems. They can be shipped via tractor-trailers, trains, ships or planes. Some can support a variety of systems-from the vendor and third parties-while others are limited in what they offer.

Michelle Bailey, an analyst with IDC, said the containerized data center market is still in its infancy, and shipments reflect that. Bailey estimates that somewhere between 50 and 75 mobile data centers were sold worldwide last year.

The market also has been hampered by the global recession, which is forcing businesses to cut back or delay data center projects, which could include using mobile data centers.

"I think the [economy] does suppress the need for containers," Bailey said.

However, once the economy stabilizes and begins to grow, the mobile data center space should see an uptick and become a healthy market, she said. IDC estimates that by 2013, annual shipments of containers could grow to 300 to 350 units.

Still, officials with the various vendors say there is interest and they are shipping units. Steve Cumings, director of marketing for HP's Scalable Computing and Infrastructure group, said interest in the HP POD (Performance Optimized Datacenter) has grown quickly since it was introduced in 2008.

"We attribute [the interest] to the consistency of data center challenges across the industry," Cumings said. "Problems of capacity limitations in cooling, power and space are very common. Our expectation is that over time, the POD will mostly be purchased by a wide variety of enterprise and scale-out customers, but there is also significant demand across the board, from municipalities, medium[-sized] businesses and military organizations."

Sun has boasted several customer wins with its Modular Datacenter-nee Project Blackbox-including Hansen Transmissions, which was able to get an MD S20 up and running in a new factory in China within weeks, said Liz From, strategic marketing manager for Sun.

IBM has deployed most of the PMDCs (Portable Modular Data Centers) it's shipped in Europe, which is ahead of the curve in container adoption, said Brian Canney, global services director at IBM. They also are addressing a range of applications, Canney said.

"We're not looking to replace data centers with containers," he said. "We design and build data centers all over the world. The portable data center is a part of that."

Mobility is a key factor for the military and other sectors, while for others, the containers are a way of bringing in temporary compute capabilities for businesses until they can get new data center facilities online.

Web 2.0 companies, such as Google, also are looking for ways to build their data centers in a modular fashion. Containers are an option. Microsoft last year was reportedly looking at Dell's containers for a new data center in Chicago, though that appears to still be uncertain. Microsoft June 22 hired Kevin Timmons, formerly of Yahoo, as its new head of data centers.

Officials with the various vendors said the economy has had some positive and negative impact on interest in containers. George Skaff, vice president of marketing at SGI-formerly Rackable Systems-said adoption of the ICE Cube has been slowed, thanks in large part to the economy. HP's Cumings said he has seen a mix.

"On the one hand, capital is constrained, which you'd assume has an impact on all purchases," Cumings said. "However ... many customers still need the additional data center capacity, and the POD is one of the most cost-effective ways to obtain it. So, interest and demand in the POD remains strong."

IDC analyst Bailey said there does seem to be interest among businesses. A recent survey by IDC indicated that 70 percent had an interest in investigating containers, and a high percentage also had an awareness about containers, both of which were higher than she had expected. It has helped to have such big names as Dell, HP, IBM and Sun rolling out offerings, Bailey said.

Eventually containers will find homes in those Web 2.0 and hosted environments, as well as with enterprises for such jobs as temporary compute situations, for disaster recovery and for businesses that have tight time-to-market issues, she said.

Wanger, the president of i/o Data Centers, said that for hosted environments like the one his company offers, mobile data centers are only one option for his customers among others such as suites, cages and cabinets.

"We don't think they will replace [traditional] data centers," he said. "They're yet another tool."

While the containers offer advantages, many still need other aspects provided by i/o Data Centers, such as generators, fuel, water chillers and water supplies, Wanger said.