No Magic or Mystery on Sun’s Blackbox Tour

NEW YORK — Those who don’t know any better will hear about Sun Microsystems’ magical Blackbox datacenter tour and think the company created a rock star.

Company officials are currently grinding through a U.S. tour in which they
show off the 20-by-8-foot datacenter in a container that sits on a trailer
as it gets carted from city to city.

Sun Blackbox

The Blackbox has arrived.

Source: Sun

I had the opportunity to see this mobile datacenter here recently and it
didn’t disappoint. I, along with other journalists, was able to depress levers and slide around large racks of servers and storage as though they were
refrigerators on wheels.

This might be the point. The concept of the mobile datacenter is nothing new;
IBM and HP offer mobile recovery centers for those who want them. But Sun’s new twist on an old theme is fresh and, well, cool.

At a time when CIOs are begging for help to alleviate the headaches
associated with overheated datacenters that burn out hardware and boost
energy costs, Sun’s Blackbox employs a chilled water cooling system.

Dave Douglas, vice president of Sun’s Eco responsibility group, playing the
role of Willy Wonka for this particular leg of the Blackbox tour, explained
to me that cooling in the Blackbox renders 20 percent more energy efficiency
than traditional datacenters because it pumps air into one rack at a constant
speed and is immediately cooled down.

For example, in the typical datacenter, air goes through a system and into
a room, and then hot air rises, and air conditioners at the top try to cool it and put it back down to the bottom of the room.

Sun Blackbox

The Sun toy box in black.

Source: Sun

So temperatures at the top of the room are hot, blistering the racks, while
temperatures at the bottom are cooler. With the Blackbox, temperatures are
pretty much the same throughout the container.

“There’s no free air flowing around here,” Douglas said, noting that patents
for the water-based cooing system are pending. “It’s very controlled air
flow at a constant speed, and the temperature is in a very narrow band. Air
goes in one system, gets immediately cooled versus going into a big empty
room where hot and cool are mixing up.”

Other than the cooling technology, and the fact that the container boasts an
array of Sun Fire servers, blades and Sun StorageTek storage arrays that are
virtualized by the company’s software, the Blackbox is nothing special.

Analyst Joe Clabby, of Clabby Analytics, said the fact that the Blackbox
comes in a standardized shipping container and is for generalized computing
sets it apart from IBM and HP creations.

“These guys know the amount of compute power they can deliver per watt of
electricity consumed — and they’ve predetermined how much power will be
drawn and how much cooling will be needed,” Clabby said.

Sun Blackbox

Racks abound behind the big black doors.

Source: Sun

What Sun has done is scored a marketing coup over IBM and HP, who have not significantly packaged mobile datacenters and attracted attention with them
in the high-tech press.

But IBM and HP both make cooling technologies. Big Blue offers
PowerExecutive and HP makes a
technology called Dynamic Smart Cooling. Both technologies can be used in a
mobile datacenter if IBM and HP chose to package them that way.

“From the response we’re getting from customers, I’m sure the same customers
are going to ask them when they’re going to have it,” Douglas said.

He added that Sun is attracting interest from prospective customers of
various sizes in financial services, telecommunications and government and
military markets — the kind of verticals where rapid expansion can provide
a competitive advantage.

“YouTube went from zero to $1.8 billion or whatever it was sold for in 18
months,” Douglas said. “You couldn’t build a datacenter in that time, so for
things that get explosive growth, this is a great fit.”

The Blackbox could also be an effective computing tool in areas racked by
natural disasters, where earthquakes, floods or tornadoes trash datacenter
gear in buildings. In the event of another Hurricane Katrina incident, the
Blackbox could be quickly deployed to help a company get IT operations up
and running.

The Blackbox, which Douglas said will ship to customers later this year, has
not been priced. But he said Sun expects to sell it for somewhere under

Sun’s datacenter on wheels might not be a rock star. It isn’t even chocolate. But for a hot room full of hotter hardware, this is the ticket to cool.

Clint Boulton is managing editor of

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