Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Datacenter in a shipping container

Sun Project Blackbox prototype virtualized datacenter in a shipping containerSun Microsystems have designed a prototype earthquake proof data center to be delivered in a standard 20 foot shipping container. Their claim that this is the world's first virtualized datacenter built into a shipping container is hard to credit as the military have been putting computers in transportable buildings for year. But this might be the first attempt to produce a commercial off the shelf product.

Inside the Sun Black box containerized data center showing  cooling system and control panelOne innovation Sun claims is that the system uses water cooling instead of air conditioning. However, the opened door of the container shows ten very large fans. It is not clear how heat is transferred to the outside. Normally an air conditioner would be used so that just three small pipes are needed to be passed through the wall of the data canter, for coolant and condensed water.

ISO Twistlock connectorIt should be noted that while shipping containers are designed to be robust enough to survive transshipping, they are not necessarily suitable for use as permanent freestanding buildings. Something like the Sun Blackbox would normally be built into a building with a roof over it and walls surrounding it. There are numerous systems for incorporating containers into buildings which could be used. Standard ISO shipping containers have 3 "twistlock" connectors on each of their eight corners. There are an assortment of devices designed to connect multiple containers together using the twistlock connectors , to attach a containerized the building to its foundations and to add a roof.

For a secure freestanding structure, it might be better to use one of the modular concrete buildings designed for railway trackside electrical equipment. One of these from Garard was displayed at the Australian Rail Conference Exhibition 2007. These buildings are about the size of a shipping container made from one continuous piece of reinforced concrete. They have the advantage of having been designed to meet government security standards. The buildings can be made on site, or delivered on a truck (or train) pre-wired with the equipment installed. Because they are made of one piece of concrete, they are very secure and less likely to leak. It may also be possible to design one which would fit a shipping container inside. In that case the concrete building could be built on site or delivered empty, and then the shipping container full of computers simply slid inside.

It should be noted that shipping container data centers will not necessarily be a good use of space. The containers are narrow and will only have room for two rows of rack mounted cabinets, with a walkway between. There will only be access to the front of the cabinet, with no access to the back, making maintenance difficult. In most cases it will be better to use a larger room which can provide better access. If space is at a premium and a large data center is needed, then a pallet warehouse could be used (I suggested this to the Chinese government in 2003).

Also before investing in a new data center, an organization should conduct an inventory of its current data and processing requirements. In most cases it will be found that more efficient use of applications can be used to reduce the data and processing requirements, so that a smaller data center can be used, reducing the cost, space and energy use. Use of efficient XML based data storage and Web 2 applications can greatly reduce the needs of the organization for storage and processing.

Instead of virtualizing inefficient PC desktop applications, they can be replaced with properly engineered efficient applications designed to run remotely over a data link. This could reduce the processing requirements between ten and one hundred times. As an example, an organization which would have needed one of Sun's shipping container data centers, could instead downsize to one rack mount computer, the size of a four drawer filing cabinet. Apart from being one hundredth the size and use one hundredth the power, this would cost about one hundredth as much to buy.

Outsourcing the data storage or processing to a location with more space and power can also be considered, but not necessarily as far away as Iceland. The Canberra Technology City (CTC) is a proposed large data center for government and company use in Canberra, with its own power station.

Of course, alongside the shipping container data center will be needed a shipping container cafe, for the workers. ;-)

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