Sun Boxes Up the Data Center

Portable centers roll up, hook up and are ready to go

Sun Microsystems mobile data center initiative is the latest move by a company still in the midst of a massive makeover.

The Santa Clara, Calif., company over the past few years has aggressively embraced x86 computing via its partnership with Advanced Micro Devices, created a unique multicore processing architecture in its UltraSPARC T1 chips and taken a leading role on the issues of power and cooling. Now, Sun is working on a way to deliver all the technology an enterprise might need in a 10,000-square-foot data center in a standard shipping container.

"Project Blackbox" combines Suns server, storage and networking technology with an innovative water-cooling design inside a standard 20-by-8-by-8-foot shipping container that can be delivered wherever a customer wants.

The container holds 120 Sun Fire T2000 or 240 Sun Fire T1000 servers, or about 250 AMD Opteron-based "Galaxy" systems. In addition, a storage-focused container can provide up to 2 petabytes of storage, said Sun Chief Marketing Officer and Executive Vice President Anil Gadre. A container also can offer up to 15TB of memory.

The compact designs floor space is about one-third the size of a traditional 10,000-square-foot data center; saves up to 20 percent in power and cooling costs; and can be deployed about 10 times faster, sometimes in a matter of weeks. "Basically, it rolls up to you, you hook up your power, you hook up your water, you hook up your network and youre ready to go," Gadre said.

Sun unveiled the initiative Oct. 17, even though the data center wont be generally available until the middle of next year and no customers have tested it.

Sun showed drawings of how the portable data centers could be used—airlifted to oil rigs and positions atop tall buildings, stacked in warehouses for larger companies, or shipped to developing countries. They can also be used for quick Web 2.0 company build-outs and advanced military applications, Sun officials said.

The key to Sun being able to put the technology into such a compact space is the use of water to cool the systems, a more efficient approach than air cooling. Inside the containers, the systems are set up front to back along the wall of the container, with heat exchangers between each one, said Sun Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Greg Papadopoulos. The warm air from one server is passed through an exchanger, chilled and then used to cool the next server.

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, said the concept addresses many of businesses concerns. Still, Sun must answer some key questions on issues such as security, King said.

"Its an interesting idea because it addresses a lot of the challenges that people have concerning data center facility costs, in particular the real estate component," said King in Hayward, Calif. "The whole cost issues around data centers have little to do with the technology and everything to do with the support and construction of the facility."

However, at a time when disaster recovery and compliance are key issues, having a data center thats housed inside a shipping container might not be enough security for many enterprises, King said.

The concept of putting data center equipment into a portable container isnt new, though in most cases such offerings are used in disaster recovery scenarios. Hewlett-Packard, of Palo Alto, Calif., maintains about 20 mobile recovery centers that offer technology and power supplies to customers hit by a disaster. These mobile units were used extensively after hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year, said an HP spokesperson. The units are typically used for six to 12 weeks, the spokesperson said.

Senior Writer Chris Preimesberger contributed to this report.