The Sun Modular Datacenter S20 is the world's first virtualized datacenter built into a shipping container and optimized to deliver extreme energy, space, and performance efficiencies.

Earlier this week, Sun Microsystems announced that its Project Blackbox was now a commercially shipping product. I have to confess that when they first told me about this effort I saw it as a nice showcase innovation — something they could use to demonstrate how densely racks could be configured and how energy efficient their products were. They could drive it from city to city for in-person demonstrations. Nice marketing idea. But I didn’t see the practicality to real enterprise data centers. Who’d be willing to buy a container and park it outside their data center? Yeah, that’s secure.

But then Rackable came by to show us their container.

Again I saw the “park it outside” example, but they also talked of data centers being designed with indoor loading docks pre-wired to accept data center containers. Then HP came by with containers for disaster recovery purposes.

Then last week at the Cisco Nexus 7000 announcement, Debra Chrapaty, Microsoft’s corporate VP of global foundation services, stood up and told the audience, “Think containers. They’re for real.”

Turns out she’s buying them and she’s definitely not alone. The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center is using them to rapidly expand their high performance computing capacity without having to make physical plant improvements in their existing compute building.

The key to understanding the container value is in how the concept of the field replaceable unit (FRU) is defined by the infrastructure and operations professional. We usually think of hot-swappable drives, NICs, and power supplies as FRUs; and they are if your unit of “element to be managed” is a server.

In the case of Microsoft, which manages hundreds of thousands of servers across myriad data centers and colocation facilities, the unit of measure can’t be the individual server; it has to be rack, the service, the facility. Google has been well publicized for building its own servers for its mega-sized data centers (megacenters). They aren’t building robust servers; they’re stripping them down because they have no intention of fixing the server if a component fails. It’s far more economical for them to throw out the whole thing. The server is the FRU.

But for the world’s megacenters and the operations professionals who run them, the server as the FRU may be becoming old thinking. The data center container makes the case that in fact the FRU may just be a lot larger than that. Imagine if your ERP system ran in container 0015 and failed over to container 0034. Is the next generation data center rolling down I-95 right now?

By James Staten

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