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Sun Blackbox, meet APC's whitebox

American Power Conversion has squeezed a data center into a truck, but it doesn't expect customers for a couple of years.

Sun Microsystems made a splash recently with Project Blackbox, a data center in a portable storage container. But American Power Conversion may have beaten it to the punch.

Call it Project Whitebox. Or if you want to be official, the InfraStruXure Express On-demand Mobile Data Center. It's a computing facility built into a white 18-wheeler truck, and it's been around since 2005. APC has put together only one, and it's for sale at $1.5 million.

The technology predates Sun's Project Blackbox, which fits a data center into a standard shipping container. Blackbox, unveiled in 2006, is still in the development stage; Sun plans to sell it later this year.

Whitebox was intended to spotlight APC's belief that data centers need not be complex facilities with raised floors to distribute cool air, said Russell Senesac, director of infrastructure systems at the West Kingston, R.I.-based company. That idea dovetails with APC's business, selling power and cooling equipment that fits into standard computing racks.

"The trailer is a complete data center system. It has an onboard generator, uninterruptible power supply, cooling, network operation center, and its own satellite feed," Senesac said. "You could park it in a cornfield in Kansas and operate a data center autonomously, as long as you had fuel in the fuel tank."

The company still likes the idea, but doesn't have plans to build more. Instead, it's leaning toward partnerships with specialists in sophisticated trailer designs. That includes Featherlite, which builds trailers to haul NASCAR race cars and Kentucky Derby horses.

APC's design has caught the attention of big-box retailers that like the idea of a system that can run not only a major retail outlet's computers but also supply a store's electrical power. Government and military customers also have expressed interest, Senesac added.

"Making trailers is not something we specialize in. Right now we're relying on integration partners. We don't feel at this time that the market is really ready for a product like this yet," he said.

Senesac was encouraged that Sun's Blackbox "validated" APC's thinking, but estimated that more widespread readiness for such systems is "probably about two years out."

APC's system houses 12 racks of computing gear and can supply enough power and cooling to support 12 kilowatts per rack. The generator itself produces 175 kilowatts and can use its own fuel tank, the truck's tank or an external supply.

In showing the system off, APC heard that customers would like a smaller system with three or four racks that can fit into a truck that an ordinary person can drive. And military customers are interested in models that are more transportable or better protected.