Sun’s big black box

There are big boxes, small boxes, and white boxes. Then there’s the one assembled by Sun Microsystems.Dubbed Project Blackbox, the virtualized mobile data centre visited Toronto last month, hitting the road (on wheels) as part of an international tour.

The largest data centre to cross the Canadian border, it’s a 20-foot-long shipping container housing a customized and compact configuration of Sun technology (or compatible third-party equipment) of servers, storage and networking gear.

It aims to outperform traditional data centres that are generally costly, complex, inflexible and consume power and space.

It provides the capability to grow data centres “in a more modular level instead of taking that big jump of $10 or 20 million at a time, and then waiting the two or three years till it actually gets constructed,” said Sun’s Michael Bohlig, senior director of business development for the project.

Specifically, it takes a mere one-tenth of the time (equal to a few months) to design, build, and deploy a traditional data centre. According to Bohlig, energy savings are at 25 per cent, and the integrating cooling system (that he likens to a “cyclone effect happening inside the container”) at 20 per cent more efficient.

“It’s a fully functional standalone data centre. All you need is a network connection and you’ve got a data centre that is the equivalent of 3,000 square feet of [traditional] data centre space,” said Bohlig.

Eight standard-sized racks are packed into 160 square feet. Seven of them can be populated with a combination of server, storage and networking gear; and the remaining rack is for network switches, a dehumidifier, thermal management systems, and security alarm.

In a traditional data centre, floor space and racks are not fully utilized because cool air needs to circulate between racks. Bohlig said with Project Blackbox, however, the racks and required cooling gear have been compacted to support 25kW of power per rack. The average data centre averages 3kW per rack, he said.

The availability and low cost of shipping containers – standard mode of freight transportation – is the form factor that drives value for customers, said Bohlig. Part of this was its ability to be carried by ship, train, aircraft or helicopter.

Mobility can be a cost saver, too, said Bohlig, given that a company can move the Blackb where energy is cheaper, where the climate is cooler, or where real estate is more affordable, such as a rooftop.

And Blackbox is green: the container is reusable and recyclable.

Bohlig doesn’t expect it to replace the traditional data centre. Rather, Blackbox should allow customers to augment their existing storage space incrementally, or use it as a temporary storage during data migration.

“Customers can deploy Project Blackbox as needed to meet the demands of increased capacity.”

This expandability, he added, suits service providers such as hosting and telecom companies.

Besides those industries, he said Project Blackbox can be deployed to “unusual” locations, such as areas of seismic exploration by energy companies. Organizations providing disaster relief might want to deploy it in a disaster zone.The product is due to be released in late July. So far, Sun has about “100 clients in the pipeline” located globally, said Bohlig. Adoption, he added, may be slowed down by the novel approach to viewing data storage.

The cost of Blackbox is not quite finalized, but Bohlig estimated it will be less than US$500,000 for the setup minus servers, storage and networking gear.

Sun’s first client, Stanford University, is deploying a data centre to resolve data storage issues.

“They can’t just buy land or just build a building – it takes so long to get the permits, much less to actually build the building,” said Maurice Cloutier, project manager for Project Blackbox, in an interview during the last month’s JavaOne conference.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based university, said Cloutier, can deploy a data centre in 90 days.

The idea of having building blocks means customers can replicate configuration as easily as they can remove a data centre should requirements for data storage dissolve, he said. “Putting it in a shipping container is not an original idea, the originality is our implementation, and that we’re . . . abstracting the data centre and turning it into a building block.”

Nathan Brookwood, analyst with Insight 64, says that Blackbox facilitates improved machine density and will provide companies a way to buy well-designed data centres off the shelf, and get those centres running without a lot of expensive on-site labour.

“Most data centres have been designed to accommodate both humans and machines. Today’s centres require little if any human support, except to repair or replace hardware elements. Sun takes advantage of this change by creating an environment that is good for machines, but not the sort of place humans would want to spend lots of time in,” Brookwood said.

While Blackbox presents a variety of interesting business opportunities for companies looking for innovative solutions to their data centre needs, what about security for a mobile data centre, a potential target for thieves?

“I believe the security angle is receiving a bit too much play in this story. Organizations that worry about thieves hauling their data centres away can locate the containers inside secure facilities, instead of leaving them sitting in a parking lot or on a rooftop, where thieves with large helicopters can haul them away,” Brookwood said.

“The biggest drawback I see is that the Blackbox buyer must live with the constraints imposed by an 8-foot by 8-foot by 20-foot container. If they don’t view that as a constraint, this idea should certainly appeal to them.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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