Rackable Says It’s Got a Better ‘Blackbox’

Sun Microsystems generated a lot of publicity with its innovative portable data center dubbed Blackbox, complete with a roadshow to show it off to potential customers. Since it fits in a standard shipping container, Blackbox adds mobility to what is generally considered a fixed-location computing resource, the data center.

But now Blackbox has a competitor with a significant bragging right. While Sun’s been busy testing and marketing working prototypes of its system, Rackable Systems  announced its Concerto alternative and its first customer. Rackable said it hasn’t received clearance to say who the customer is, other than that it’s “one of the world’s leading Internet companies” and already a customer for its better-known server racks.

Ironically, some investor sites reported last week that Sun
 was in talks to buy Rackable. Rackable had no
comment on the rumor and Sun could not be reached for comment.

So who is the Rackable customer? In a briefing with internetnews.com on the Concerto rollout, Rackable execs discussed a data center customer in the Pacific Northwest that is taking advantage of hydroelectric power. That description fits Rackable customer Yahoo , which last year opened a new data center in Wenatchee, Wash.

Yahoo couldn’t be reached for comment on Rackable specifically, but a spokesperson said the company generally doesn’t comment on the technology it purchases for internal use. Another major Rackable customer in the Pacific northwest is Amazon.

Storage containers are available in different standard sizes. Rackable is using a larger, 40-by-eight foot size than Sun’s Blackbox which is housed in a 20-by-eight container. Concentro can hold up to 1,200 of Rackable’s rack-mount DC powered servers and up to 3.5 petabytes  of storage.

The specs for Sun’s Blackbox are a maximum of 240 Sun Fire servers and up to 1.4 petabytes of storage. Both systems rely on a water-cooling technology, though Rackspace said it is also working on water-cooling alternatives.

“Some people may not like a water system in their data center environment,” said Conor Malone, director of data center solutions, at Rackable.

Like Sun, Rackable is pitching its portable data center as a way to augment overcrowded IT facilities and to create entirely new ones where enterprises might not have previously considered building one.

Rackable claims Concentro’s self-contained cooling technology can enable a cost savings of up to 80 percent versus traditional data center air handling expenses while improving reliability. The Milpitas, Calif.-based company said Concerto is configured for quick deployment, as quick as a few minutes when plugged into standard power and network connections.

Rackable, which specializes in x86 servers based on either AMD or Intel
processors, said it will offer any mix of 1u, 2u, 3u, or 4u servers a customer might want. The initial offering includes Intel Xeon 5300 quad-core processors. The first Concerto customer is taking delivery with 600 Xeon 5300 processors on board. “We absolutely feel like we have are competitive with Sun on price performance,” said Colette LaForce, Rackable’s vice president of marketing.

Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff, credits both Sun and Rackable for
experimenting with new ideas “but I don’t see this becoming a dominant mode
of server deployment in the next 12 to 24 months.

“If you don’t experiment and learn from that, it gets harder to figure
out what customers want,” said Haff. “There are still advantages to scale
and large data centers where you have the people and skill sets to run them.
To what degree companies might want a mobile data center versus
pre-configured racks, nobody knows.”

Malone said the Rackable is targeting companies interested in having additional mobile capacity and those concerned with business continuity issues in case of natural disaster. “There is also a long tradition in the telco industry of having truck-based systems ready to go,” he said. “We plan to feed into that.”

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