Sun Gets -Blackbox' Ready to Roll

After a year of touring and promotion, Sun Microsystems' mobile data center is ready for sale with new services and a new name.

After a 15-month test drive, Sun Microsystems' data center on wheels is ready to roll out of the showroom and onto the street.

Since October 2006, Sun has been heavily promoting its mobile data center, or "Project Blackbox," as an alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar data centers. Now, under its official name-Sun Modular Datacenter-the 20-by-8-by-8 trailer goes on sale Jan. 29.

Since its introduction, Blackbox has been on a whirlwind tour both inside and outside the United Statesas Sun has looked to drum up interest in the mobile data center. When it officially goes on sale, at a base price of $559,000, Sun will add some additional services, which include setting up the equipment, an assessment of a enterprise's IT needs and remote management capabilities.

While some analyst have given Sun credit for looking at customers' concerns about data centers in a new way-the issues range from floor space to cooling to compute power-many also believe that few enterprises will take a mobile approach to these problems.

"Sun does a really good job at creating buzz around the company's ideas," said Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research. "There are some applications where a highly portable, very powerful data center environment makes a lot of sense. I have a feeling that this is one of those issues where it makes a great deal of sense from an engineering point of view, but it runs into the heavy weather when it comes to changing behavioral wisdom."

While King sees the modular data center has a viable solution for companies concerned about recovering from a large-scale disaster, there are few other areas where he sees customers running out to buy a 20-foot shipping container fully loaded with servers, storage and networking infrastructure.

Darlene Yaplee, vice president for Integrated Platforms and Systems Marketing at Sun, said the company already has several diverse customers, including Mobile TeleSystems OJSC, a Russian mobile phone operator, and the Linear Accelerator Center run by Stanford University and the U.S. Department of Energy.

While Sun is touting these and other customers as proof there is an interest for a mobile data center, Sun executives did not discuss how many customers it projects will buy modular data centers in the next several months.

"We have found that it has broad applicability," said Yaplee, pointing to list its current list of customers. "We have seen different examples of customers using the data center in different ways. It's not just one segment. What we are hearing from our customers is that many of them are growing out of their current data center space and they are looking for a high density solution that is eco-efficient."

The Sun mobile data center is capable of working not only with Sun servers, storage and networking, but a wide-range of other hardware from other vendors as long as it can fit into the trailer's 19-inch racks. When fully loaded, the data center can offer up to 18 teraflops or 18 trillion calculations per second of computing power and up to three petabytes of disk capacity along with Sun's specific services for customers.

With this market, Sun has little competition except for Rackable Systems, which began selling its second-generation mobile data center-ICE (Integrated Concentro Environment) Cube-in September. Unlike Sun's modular data center, the ICE Cube only uses Rackable equipment and is made to order for customers.

Sun, a much larger company, has several mobile data centers ready to ship once customers specify what type of hardware equipment they require for a project.