Data centre in a box

Data centres come in all shapes and sizes – from the world’s largest civilian data processing complex run by airline reservations giant Amadeus near Munich to the dingy data centres located in many a City of London institution’s basement. But maybe data centres – or at least the fundamental units needed to create one – could be commoditised, delivered ready-to-use in a standard shipping container. This is the thinking behind the notion of so-called trailer park computing.

With the cost of building data centres running into the hundreds of millions, and many companies suffering from an acute shortage of IT space, executives are certainly looking for alternatives – no matter how radical. According to research by the Uptime Institute, the cost of data centre facilities already overshadows the value

of the equipment they house. By 2014, servers, storage and other equipment in data centres will account for only a quarter of data centre costs – infrastructure and energy will eat up the remaining three-quarters.

Furthermore, organisations used to be able to count on a data centre being viable for a decade or more – and to amortise that capital expenditure over that period. But many accept now that they will have to create data centre space much more frequently and more flexibly.

One infrastructure manager at a large investment bank told Information Age how his company spent four years planning and building a new data centre facility, only to fill it to capacity within a year of going live. “All our plans assumed it would last us at least five years,” he says.

Rakesh Kumar of IT analyst group Gartner suggests that one solution to alleviate such uncertainty is to build modular data centres. Businesses can acquire huge sites, and build blocks of data centres, each of perhaps 5,000 square foot. As additional capacity is needed, new blocks can be bolted on. In this way businesses can secure prime locations, with the necessary connectivity and access to power, but minimise capital expenditure.

But some vendors are pushing the idea of modularity even further. Both Sun Microsystems and Rackable Systems are selling ready-to-run data centres that are shipped in modified shipping containers. Sun is marketing its Project Blackbox as a quick way of adding compute capacity (in car parks or on rooftops) to overstretched data centres, as well as a means of bringing high-powered IT to hostile environments like oil rigs and refugee camps.

Rackable, however, has a grander vision. At is simplest, the company’s Concentro boxes – which can house 1,200 of its servers or a 3.5 petabyte storage array – can be thought of as “one giant USB stick”, says Conor Malone, director of data centre solutions at Rackable. But it can also be the basis for building an entirely new data centre infrastructure, he adds.

All the equipment inside the Concentro boxes runs from a single direct current supply, dramatically reducing the electricity lost in AC/DC conversion. Rackable estimates that this cuts energy consumption by up

to 30%. Furthermore, by virtue of being housed in standard shipping containers, the units are easily transportable by truck or ship. Instead of having compute power situated at a single, over-taxed site, the boxes can be spread around an organisation’s business units.

The concept has attracted interest from other vendors too. IBM and APC are thought to be working on a joint offering; Dell too is believed to be kitting out shipping containers; even Microsoft’s researchers have published papers on this new model for computing infrastructure.

Part of the attraction is that users and vendors alike are anticipating an explosion in volumes of corporate data stored and processed in the coming years, says James Governor of IT advisory group RedMonk. And current data centres simply “don’t work well” when it comes to supporting that growth, he adds.

For many, the price tag (Rackable’s Concentro is reputed to cost $2 million to $3 million) may be too high; for others the notion of purchasing so much data centre equipment from a single vendor may be too risky. But with the current atmosphere of crisis at many data centres, any alterative is going to be worth exploring – even when that means plumbing up a shipping container.

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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