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Tech Industry

HP in a box

HP has a practical take on the computers in shipping containers theme.

The idea of shipping-container-as-datacenter was floated early and loudly by Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz. It's easy to see how he got enamored with the whole shipping container theme. For a boring steel box, the history of the shipping container is a fascinating story about labor relations, standards, and globalization. (I highly recommend Marc Levinson's book The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger.)

However, it's always been a bit unclear to what degree Sun viewed its "Project Blackbox" initiative as a serious business opportunity, as opposed to just a visionary idea or an opportunity to argue that Sun uniquely gets the future of computing. A variety of other vendors have adopted a similar concept. Some of them are likewise treating it as much as a showcase as a practical solution.

However, such an attitude isn't universal--especially among those vendors who are in the business of designing datacenters as well as selling servers and other gear. For example, in June, IBM added a Portable Modular Data Center (PMDC) offering within the context of a variety of modular form factors for different customer types and requirements.

The latest announcement comes from HP, which has now introduced a Performance Optimized Data Center (POD). It, perhaps most of all, emphasizes the practical and evolutionary from a technology perspective, and alignment with the needs of specific customer segments in the marketing.

Technology first. Most of the other such products on the market introduce various clever schemes to cram lots of computer, storage, networking, power, and cooling gear into the tight confines of a shipping container without compromising the ability to service and reconfigure that equipment. Not easy, and definitely not in keeping with the way access is handled in a regular bricks and mortar datacenter.

HP takes a different approach. It uses 19"-wide, full-depth racks in a 50U height. In other words, standard width, standard depth, and just a bit higher than the 42U racks that are standard in most datacenters. This should make it straightforward to install most standard IT gear--whether from HP or someone else.

The catch is that accessing the rear of the racks requires opening doors built into the side of the shipping container. That's another door to be properly sealed and a more involved procedure to get at the back of the racks. Nonetheless, it seems a reasonable tradeoff for a lot of uses--especially as it helps contribute to a very high density design as well.

From a marketing and positioning perspective, HP is positioning this product most of all for capacity expansion of existing facilities when more computing horsepower is needed in a hurry; it says that one of these PODs can be delivered in about six weeks. Closely related is what HP describes as "transitional" use--that is, capacity needed for certain window of time; appropriate financial terms and conditions, such as leases, are important in this case. Leasing also plays into "generational" deployments where customers may want to swap out a computer infrastructure en masse for a technology refresh.

Interestingly, a lot of the "sexy" container scenarios are secondary or missing in HP's plans. Extreme-density scale-out is a POD target, but one that HP sees as a smaller opportunity than use cases like capacity expansion or disaster recovery. And HP isn't especially going after military and telecommunications use cases. It says that density isn't a big deal in these segments that, instead, emphasize customization and robustness. In other words, not a good match with an HP strategy that is fundamentally about leveraging its strengths in volume server design and supply chains.

And that's the reason HP's likely to be as successful with this type of product as anyone--if not more than most. It has the datacenter design expertise, sure. EYP Mission Critical Facilities, which HP bought in 2007, brought with it truly premiere capabilities in this regard. However, it's the IT gear within the container, how it's delivered, how it's serviced, and how it's upgraded that matter most to potential customers. Those are all things HP does well. And even if HP puts great stock in its ability to integrate just about any third-party equipment, it clearly hopes that its own systems will be a major part of the mix. The rest is just a box. Even if the box did "make the world smaller and the world economy bigger."