Containerized Data Centers Moving Out Of Niche Shadows

Portable containerized data centers, which pack the compute power of a small data center into a standard shipping container, can be rolled out quickly as a way to increase IT capacity faster than might be possible with their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

Portable containerized data centers feature a variety of data center technologies, including servers, storage, networking, power, and cooling equipment pre-configured in standard 20-foot or 40-foot shipping containers similar to those used to ship products on ships or by rail.

Such "data centers-in-a-box" can be used to quickly expand the capacity of fixed data center locations, or quickly shipped and set up in remote locations for use in an emergency or where compute power is required but no local data centers are available.

While the market for portable containerized data centers still depends on more specialized uses such as containers built for companies such as Google which can bring them in and quickly set them up to meet their fast-growing compute requirements, solution providers in the data center market are looking at more mainstream uses for them.

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For now, however, the market is still fairly small. According to an Uptime Institute survey of 525 large data center operators conducted this past Spring, 4 percent of respondents said they have deployed containerized data centers, 5 percent said they are planning to do so, 37 percent are exploring the concept, and 55 percent have no interest in the technology.

The number of potential suppliers continues to grow. Cisco this Spring became the latest to enter the market with a new offering configured with Cisco's UCS (Unified Computing System) data center technology, which ties server, storage, and networking into a single architecture.

Customers can also order them configured with a vBlock storage architecture from VCE, the EMC-Cisco joint-venture which builds storage infrastructures for virtualized and cloud environment, or with a NetApp FlexPod Modular Data Center Solution.

Cisco joins a large number of suppliers, some of whom are well-known server and system vendors including Hewlett-Packard, SGI, IBM, Dell, Liebert, Oracle-Sun, and Bull.

Representative offerings from the major vendors, in addition to the new Cisco units, include the ICE Cube from SGI. The ICE Cube is available in 20-foot and 40-foot containers which can support up to 1,540 U of rack space, up to 36,768 server core, and up to 16 petabytes of storage capacity using its own server and storage products or those from third-party vendors.

Another is HP's Performance Optimized Datacenter, or POD, which supports up to 1,600 server nodes or 5,400 hard drives in a 20-foot container or up to 3,520 server nodes or about 12,000 hard drives in a 40-foot container. HP claims its 40-foot models offers the equivalent of a traditional 5,000-square-foot data center space.

Smaller companies in this field, as listed by a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study in February, include i/o Data Centers, Pacific Voice & Data, Elliptical Mobile Solutions, PDI, Cirrascale, Lee Technologies, Telenetix, Universal Networking Services, NxGen Modular, and BladeRoom Group.

A representative model from these lesser-known vendors is the FORREST container from Poway, Calif.-based Cirrascale, which the company claims can house over 2,880 servers or 26 PBs of storage in a 40-foot container. The company offers customers a choice of its own blade server and blade storage systems or third-party equipment.

Next: Different Types, Different Markets

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study separates containerized data centers into two types, depending on the cooling system design.

First generation units require some type of cooling infrastructure which could be an external chilled water source or some type of on-board or external cooling devices.

Second generation units make use of evaporative cooling that takes advantage of cooler ambient outside temperatures where suitable.

Both types require an external power supply, which could be from a power utility or from external power generation modules, the Laboratory said.

There are several scenarios where implementing containerized data centers may be a viable option for customers.

The first is as a way to quickly add server and storage capacity without the need to expand or build a physical data center building. This is because the typical solution is built to a customer's order by a systems vendor or integrator who can handle the installation and configuration of the servers, networking gear, and/or storage before the unit is shipped to the customer's site.

For instance, HP, which last Fall introduced a new facility that acts as an assembly line for its Performance Optimized Data Centers, or HP PODs, claims that it can build and configure one of the units in as little as six weeks, with the customer being responsible for adding the water, power, and networking.

Cisco, in the meantime, says its containerized data center takes 120 days from the day the order is cut to get it to the customer site.

Containerized data centers can also be used either as temporary housing for IT operations at a brick-and-mortar data center which is undergoing upgrades or retrofits of new equipment or as a way to add capacity to an existing data center. In such cases, the portable units can take advantage of existing power and cooling infrastructures.

Customers looking to collocate IT operations in a third-party data center may also be candidates for containerized data centers. In such a case, the container can be fully configured and trucked into an existing data center.

They can also be used for emergency deployments after a disaster, or in temporary deployments by certain organizations such as the military.

For all the buzz in the industry about portable containerized data centers, solution providers who have been working in data centers for years say they have seen very few in use.

However, they see both advantages and disadvantages to the technology.

Jim Wolford, owner and CEO of Atomic Data Centers, a Minneapolis, Minn.-based company which builds infrastructure for and manages seven data centers, said he has yet to see any interest in portable containerized data centers.

"All I've heard about these is from the vendors advertising them," Wolford said. "No customers ever say they want one. They're cute. I just don't see my customers asking for one to be brought in by crane to the top of one of their buildings."

Keith Norbie, vice president of sales at Nexus Information Systems, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based solution provider, said he has yet to see a containerized data center, but he could see some possible use cases for the technology.

For instance, a containerized data center mounted on a semi-truck could roll into an area facing a disaster and be lit up within a couple of hours, Norbie said. "If you have a disaster, you need a disaster recovery data center, but customers might not want to buy a full disaster center in advance," he said.

Next: Disaster Recovery, Data Center Use Debated

In such a case, groups of customers or solution providers could consider investing in a containerized data center as a form of disaster recovery insurance policy, Norbie said. "You could have several companies buy shares in one and have it ready in case of a disaster," he said.

Wolford disagreed about the usefulness of a portable containerized data center in a disaster.

"If Hurricane Katrina hits again, there's no reason to rush out and put new servers in," he said. "I might help customers with getting the Internet set up. But I'd rather keep the servers out of a disaster zone."

Data center owners also debate the value of containerized data centers.

Jordan Jacobs, director of corporate strategy at Phoenix NAP, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based provider of data center services from its own data center facilities, said his company is not planning to use containerized data centers.

Jacobs said he sees two types of containerized data centers.

The first, which Jacobs said could be useful in certain circumstances, are those which are filled with only servers, but have no integrated cooling, UPS, or power. "Instead of ordering 3,000 Dell servers, each in one box, and then configuring them in a data center, they could be done in a container," he said. "If a server goes bad, it can be thrown away."

The second, which Jacobs said are probably not as useful given the state of many data centers in the market today, are those where one container is full of servers, one full of UPSs, and one full of power equipment.

"Data centers are already modular," he said. "Large data centers already have the pads in place, the power run in. So customers can just drop their equipment in. Our data center started with 4 MWs (megawatts) of UPS, was expanded to 8 MWs, and we can add a new module to get 12 MWs. Coolers and chillers are factory-built and brought in on pallets and installed in three days."

For those who argue containerized data centers are power-efficient, Jacobs answers that if customers only consider the cost of connecting chilled water, the efficiency rating is still high. "But you need to include the UPS and the generator in the efficiency rating," he said. "And what about the NOC (network operating center)? The monitoring?"

There may be certain circumstances when a customer might want to drop in a portable data center plug in a portable generator, and connect chilled water, but not during a disaster, Jacobs said.

"Where will the water come from?" he said. "Where do you get the diesel? In a disaster, it's easier to drop in new generators and get existing equipment up and running."

Pelio & Associates, a Saratoga, Calif.-based real estate developer, on the other hand had earlier this year opened a new data center in Santa Clara, Calif., that is essentially an open area designed to accept preconfigured data center modules built into 40-foot and 20-foot containers instead of racks of IT equipment.

Customers don't want to pay for a 50,000-square-foot facility just to flip the switch on two or three racks of servers, storage, and networking gear, said Les Pelio, co-owner of Pelio & Associates. By using containerized data center modules, customers only have to pay for what they need, and get almost instant access to the new IT resources, Pelio said.

NEXT: A Market Still In Its Infancy

This is a huge shift in data center development, one that shows that the concept of data centers is still in its infancy, Pelio said.

"We just provide the power and connectivity," he said. "Our solution is agnostic to the vendors. It's very simple for us. We provide the space and plug-ins. Whatever the customer wants to use, they just bring it in. The first modular container came in by truck and was ready to go in one hour."

Using containerized data center modules is really all about providing total cost of ownership to data center customers, Pelio said.

"Where will customers be in two years?" he said. "It's all about flexibility. Data centers are very cumbersome to build, get permits for, and operate. For us, once we're approved for one container, we're approved for them all."