Data centre building blocks

Rackable Systems wasn’t the first company to begin shipping fully configured data centres in shipping containers.

But its new Concentro system has helped stoke the excitement about so-called ‘trailer park computing’.

IT controversialist Nicholas Carr is responsible for the ‘trailer park’ moniker, but despite the pejorative overtones, he sees a big future for the data-centre-in-a-box. It could become “the default architecture for the utility data centre”, he postulates.

Sun was first to market with its BlackBox; Rackable has followed suit; Carr expects Dell and IBM to do so too.

The reason Carr is so excited by the trend is that the pre-built, easily-transported shipping containers solve some of the most pressing enterprise IT problems today: the corporate demand for powerful data centres is intensifying just at the point when energy and cooling issues are testing the limits of current data centre design.

With its self-contained 1,200 rack-mounted servers or up to 3.5 petabytes of storage, all engineered to be as energy efficient as possible, and easy to bring online, “Concentro is the perfect building block for the data centre of the future,” boasts Giovanni Coglitore, founder and chief technology officer of Rackable Systems.

And while data centre infrastructure vendors have invested heavily in improving the efficiency of components, the trailer-park model provides an integrated collection of computing power, eliminating the need for costly facilities.

One reason that this is important, argue the model’s advocates, is that the demand for computing power is set to explode. Industries such as pharmaceuticals and financial services are becoming evermore data intensive, driving demand for powerful, reliable and efficient data centres.

Even companies such as Microsoft are investigation the model. In January 2007, Microsoft researcher James Hamilton published a paper arguing for a modular future for data centres, although he proposes using commodity components, rather than the specialised equipment used by Rackable and Sun. So will the shipping container become the building block of the next-generation data centre?

The experts' response…

Modular data centres provide a degree of flexibility, says Eric Vishria, VP of marketing at data centre automation company Opsware, but other problems persist.

The shipping containers are a great concept, and they are one way to solve real problems around flexibility, efficiency and power in the data centre. But you have to think about how it will fit with legacy infrastructure. Companies already have substantial data centres, and it’s not necessarily clear how you can simply migrate that to a few shipping containers. The problems in the data centre can’t be solved by just hardware.

Trailer park computing may only be a niche market to begin with, says James Governor of analyst group RedMonk, but it is likely to be a fast-growing market.

At first, this idea is probably only going to appeal to businesses with very specific demands – where flexibility and scalability are important. One example might be pharmaceutical companies, where they are already talking about introducing RFID into every item in their laboratory. Do companies want to go the lengths Google has in building its own highly scalable infrastructure? Probably not, and that means these shipping containers could be very appealing.

Henry Catchpole

Henry Catchpole runs Inform Direct, a company records management software company which simplifies the process of dealing with Companies House. The business was set up in 2013.

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