Sun to unveil data center in a box

CEO Jonathan Schwartz to show off "Project Blackbox," data center equipment packaged in stackable containers. Video: Sun's 'portable' data center Photos: Project Blackbox

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MENLO PARK, Calif.--Giving a new meaning to "portable computer," Sun Microsystems plans to sell a working data center packaged in a stackable shipping container.

On Tuesday, the company unveiled "Project Blackbox," which tucks several racks of computing gear, along with the necessary power and cooling equipment, into a standard shipping container 8 feet wide, 8 feet tall and 20 feet long. Jonathan Schwartz, the server and software company's new chief executive, promoted the idea in a parking lot outside the company's facilities here.

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Video: Sun's 'portable' Blackbox data center
Company unveils one-box data center.

"We do not believe the existing data centers will be shut down. They're not anachronisms," Schwartz said at the event. "But we believe as customers continue to look where to invest new dollars, their appetite to put a quarter of a billion dollars into a data center that will take three years to build is declining fast."

Sun believes the technology will appeal to customers who are running out of space in their current data centers, providing backup computing gear for disaster recovery services, or setting up operations in remote locations, said Dave Douglas, Sun's vice president of advanced technology.

Such buyers will be able to stack a few containers on some disused real estate, then attach a network, power cables and chilled water lines, and get to work. The containers filter and dehumidify air and hold as much as 10 tons of equipment. They can also withstand a shock nine times the force of gravity--meaning a six-inch drop won't hurt, Douglas said.

"We have a lot of discussions with our big customers. About 70 percent are out of space, power and cooling in the data center. Just about everybody has a story: 'I need a little headroom now. I'm growing faster than expected,'" Douglas said. Sun hopes to begin selling Project Blackbox systems next summer, he said.

Project Blackbox

Large businesses today typically house their computer equipment in traditional data centers, which are expensive affairs with elaborate designs to circulate enough cool air to keep servers from overheating.

Blackbox is likely to appeal to some customers who need to ship computing gear to disaster sites or remote areas into which a business is expanding, but not to the mainstream, said Jerald Murphy, a Robert Francis Group analyst.

"That basic concept will have a certain amount of appeal, but I think it'll be transient," he said, as computer makers improve their products' power and efficiency and thereby permit more equipment to be packed into existing data centers. "The better practice is to design things right the first time and plan things better," Murphy said.

With Blackbox, Murphy said, customers will have to make sure they can run power and networking to the container, and that container placement and diesel generators don't violate zoning or environmental regulations.

But Sun sees a need for faster response. With some customers, it can take three years to design, fund and build a new data center, Douglas said.

Sun isn't the first to come up with the idea, added Murphy, who six years ago designed shipping container-based computer systems for customers performing classified work. "If they're thinking they invented it, they're wrong," Murphy said.

Unraveling complexity
Project Blackbox is the latest attempt by Sun to sweep away complexity in the computing industry and replace it with simpler, more standardized technology.

Sun caters to the data center market, but has long bemoaned what it perceives as gratuitous specialization. Customers assemble their own "Frankenstein" data centers rather than standardizing on simple gear or tapping into computing services housed by specialists. Naturally, Sun would like to sell the services for the easy-to-use modules.

Though the shipping containers are portable, Sun said the data centers must be switched off while moving. "We envision this as transportable, not mobile," Douglas said. "We know we can do about a 6-inch drop with the container."

And Sun can't put just any computing equipment in the containers. Its high-end E25K servers and StorageTek tape libraries, for example, would require a different container design, he said.

Sun is trying to figure out whether to come up with standard server configurations or let customers and business partners decide what systems to put in the containers, Douglas said.