Sun serves up portable data centre

Sun Microsystems Corp. has unveiled Project Blackbox, a prototype of the world’s first flexible, on-the-fly data centre.

Blackbox, which Sun says has the flexibility to be deployed virtually anywhere an organization needs a data centre, has been designed to accommodate ever-increasing speeds and networking demands of doing business with computers, says David Douglas, vice-president, Eco-Responsibility of Sun.

“We were hearing from our customers that the process of building data centres the traditional way is increasingly expensive and the time to do it was out of sync. They were trying to make business decisions. People are looking for ways to get out of these constraints,” Douglas says. The data centre, which Sun says will provide an “instant-on” data centre that packages computing, storage and network infrastructure, is housed in a standard shipping container and comes with high power and cooling units built in. “Unlike the data centres of today, the computing facilities of tomorrow will be modular, flexible and optimized for the bottom line,” said Jonathan Schwartz, CEO and president of Sun.

Based on the Solaris 10 Operating System, Sun says the Blackbox, slated for availability in summer 2007, is designed to be a cheap, efficient use of power and data management. It will be able to hold up to 240 Sun Fire servers, providing as much as two petabytes of storage and seven terabytes of DRAM.

“We’ve been doing things effectively the same way the whole history of computing. In a way, we really do believe that the process of building the traditional data centres is out of sync with the speed of today’s business. There will be a trend towards more modular, more agile data centres. We think that’s where the future is going to be,” Douglas says.

Blackbox can be configured to run in a variety of different capacities, including a hosting configuration that would place it among the top 200 fastest supercomputers around the world. The data centre, which is completely virtualized and housed in a standard shipping container, packs more racks tighter than stationary data centres and has a simple external hook-up.

In terms of security, Blackbox has integrated sensors, alarms and GPS built-in, as well as shock absorption, front and rear doors, a central service aisle and slide mechanisms for maintenance.

So who would be interested in such a mobile, modular data centre?

Sun says that Blackbox has a variety of potential applications. Easy access to computing resources for Web-based companies, the military, developing nations that lack access to power and networking infrastructure, and oil exploration are some of the potential scenarios Sun says Blackbox may be deployed in.

Nathan Brookwood, analyst with Insight 64, says that Black Box facilitates improved machine density and will provide companies a way to buy well-designed data centres off the shelf, and get those centres running without a lot of expensive on-site labor.

“Most data centres have been designed to accommodate both humans and machines. Today’s centres require little if any human support, except to repair or replace hardware elements. Sun takes advantage of this change by creating an environment that is good for machines, but not the sort of place humans would want to spend lots of time in,” Brookwood says.

While Blackbox does present a variety of interesting business opportunities for companies looking for innovative solutions to their data centre needs, what about security for a mobile data centre, a potential target for thieves?

“I believe the security angle is receiving a bit too much play in this story. Organizations that worry about thieves hauling their data centres away can locate the containers inside secure facilities, instead of leaving them sitting in a parking lot or on a rooftop, where thieves with large helicopters can haul them away,” Brookwood says.

“The biggest drawback I see is that the Blackbox buyer must live with the constraints imposed by an 8 foot by 8 foot by 20 foot container. If they don’t view that as a constraint, this idea should certainly appeal to them.”

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