FOCUS on MODULARITY
What’s inside the box?
Despite developing over the years, and catching on in the market, Ambrose McNevin thinks the black box still holds its secret safe
What is extraordinary about data centers in containers is that no one thought of them sooner. It would appear that containers, those first-generation, wholly encapsulated, portable and weather-proof data centers, are gaining some traction in the market
Military deployments are talked about in hushed tones – the talk is there are bullet- and bomb-proof containerized data centers deployed in theatre and that other sectors, such as the oil and gas industry, are being found. At least that is what we are told.
But that is not to say that well-publicized installations within megasites run by Google and Microsoft are standing still. Earlier this year the US Patent and Trademark Office granted Google a patent for its modular computing environment design, which consists of a central dock and a number of shipping containers filled with IT equipment. The containers receive their power, network connectivity and cooling liquid from the dock. The company filed for the patent in June 2006.
At first, the vendors pushed the idea that these form factors are self contained, when in fact power, cooling and connectivity had to be supplied separately and in close proximity to the deployment location. Now, however, vendors are differentiating.
As the industry has moved to second- generation containerized data centers, the main advance has been in cooling, and the move from purely chilled water-to-air and evaporative cooling. SGI made a noise about adiabatic cooling in May, with one of
Spot the data center
its container models. The adiabatic cooler is about one-meter wide, as long and as tall as the container itself, and placed inside the box. Outside air enters the cooler through in-take louvers that take up around a quarter of one wall of the container. Fans push air through a filter device whose surface is wet. The water evaporates as the air goes through it, cooling the air in the process. The adiabatic process is the cooling of air as it helps the water it comes into contact with evaporate.
More recent developments include a guidebook into containerized data centers, which is being compiled by the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory in California. The lab found it was getting a lot of enquiries from US public sector bodies requiring technical assessments of containerized equipment.
The reality is that advances have happened quickly. What started as a capacity expansion proposition for a traditional data center (admittedly one that lived on the ground) has quickly developed into a bespoke solution.
First-generation containers were not much more than portable secure rooms kitted out with racks and chilled water cooling, and
power inlets that would take standard form factor servers. Available power densities differed and cooling was deployed to match.
It was quickly realized that options such as internal generators and the cooling options described could differentiate containers in the market.
One of the latest entrants to a market with many incumbents (IBM, HP, SGI, Dell, Bull, among others) is German firm Green Data Center, which produces 20ft and 40ft shipping containers. The specification says that up to a maximum of 14 racks can be accommodated, with options for the generator to be placed internal or externally. IT load can be maximized to 90KW. HP’s 20 ft POD maximum power density is 27KW per rack.
There is no shortage of shipping containers in the world, and now it would appear no shortage of companies working on shoe- horning power, cooling and IT infrastructure into them. This brings us to security.
Security is the main reason that vendors give for not talking about deployments. This is, of course, quite reasonable. Customers are nervous and don’t want to publicize that they’ve got US$1m of IT kit sitting in the parking lot.
There is a three-year old video on YouTube showing a Sun black box being earthquake- tested. Comments include: Where are the servers?
Apart from NASA’s Cloud Nebula project (See FOCUS, issue 10), among all the Photoshopped images of containers on oil rigs or up mountains, it would be great for someone to open the doors on a real, live, fully commissioned and loaded standalone containerized data center.
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