RealTime IT News

Sun Takes The Data Center on The Road

MENLO PARK, Calif. -- Sun not only thought outside the box for its latest datacenter concept, it rethought the box.

At an unveiling here on the Sun campus, company officials led media, customers and employees on a tour of Project Blackbox, a kind of portable datacenter contained in a standard 20 foot long, eight feet wide, shipping container.

"We sat down and rethought the entire concept of the datacenter," said Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz.

Sun plans to start commercial shipment by mid-2007 of the box, which is currently a working prototype. Sun said the container weighs fewer than 20,000 pounds fully configured.

Project Blackbox packs compute, storage and network infrastructure along with power and cooling into a container that can be trucked or shipped to any location a standard container might be.

Sun officials stressed they are not trumpeting the demise of the datacenter, but they do think Blackbox addresses IT concerns over space restraints and rising energy costs.

Sun container
Thinking inside the Blackbox.
Source: Sun

Schwartz said that as much as Moore's Law  is driving the performance curve, it's not keeping up with the needs of high-growth companies such as Google and eBay and Exxon Mobil who are being restrained by power costs and space considerations.

"They're frustrated that datacenters take up to three years to build and can cost as much as a quarter of a billion dollars," said Schwartz.

Greg Papadopoulos, Sun's CTO, said Sun benefited from the standard configuration and economies of scale of the shipping container industry, admitting Sun probably wouldn't think to pursue the project if it couldn't leverage those benefits.

"You add water, power and bandwidth and you're done, and you can network them together," said Papadopoulos.

One Blackbox can hold as many as 240 Sun Fire servers with as much as 1.4 petabytes  of storage and 15 terabytes  of DRAM.

Sun also has five patents pending on the design inside the container, covering such things as how it handles shock, according to Dave Douglas, the company's vice president of Eco-Responsibility.

The filtration system lets the Blackbox operate as a sealed unit as air circulates and humidity is kept to a minimum.

In a walk through of a fully populated Blackbox prototype, with eight racks of servers in two rows of four each, the sound was no less than a standard computer room, and the server racks all cool to the touch.

Blackbox handles standard Sun racks. There's an aisle in the middle with enough room for a technician or other IT staff to easily walk through and service, upgrade or install new servers.

Near the end of his presentation back inside Sun's offices, Papadopoulos clicked to a slide and joked it was time for some "outrageous marketing claims."

These included that Blackbox is 1/100th the cost of a typical datacenter, 20 percent more efficient and offers three times the compute power for the same amount of space.

How outrageous those claims really are depends on what you consider a typical datacenter to be, but Sun clearly thinks it's bringing a price/performance gain to the market.

"This is a super-efficient, scalable infrastructure," said Papadopoulos.

But it's only mobile from the point of view of being shippable; it's not designed to be operated on the road or while in transit, said Sun.

Analyst Nathan Brookwood was impressed.

"There are not a lot of companies in the industry that can design a server on a chip, as Sun did with Niagara, and also build a data center in a box, or even have the imagination to think of it."

Sun also said it expects Blackbox to be a full "lifecycle" product. "At the end of its life, we will take it back, recycle and re-manufacture," said Douglas.