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See Inside August 2007

Data Center in a Box

A shipping container stuffed with servers could usher in the era of cloud computing

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The next steel shipping container you see being hauled by a truck or train might not stow the usual mass of lumber, textiles or foodstuffs. It might hold 10 tons of finely interlaced computer servers, ready to be deposited in a parking lot to serve 10,000 employees at a corporate headquarters—or 10,000 people on the Internet. Sun Microsystems has just started delivering these data-centers-to-go, taking the concept of portable computing to a whole new level.

True, the Project Blackbox system is portable only in the industrial sense that it is integrated into a standard 20-foot shipping container. But once delivered to a site, it is almost as self-contained as any laptop. All the system requires is a power cable and an Internet connection—plus a water supply and an external chiller for cooling. As many as 250 servers inside provide up to seven terabytes of active memory and more than two petabytes of disk storage. Perhaps most critically, says Greg Papadopoulos, Sun’s chief technology officer in Menlo Park, Calif., Project Blackbox will deliver that functionality in about one-tenth the time and at one-hundredth the cost of building a traditional computer room of equal prowess.

That prospect means such boxed data centers could not only replace the corporate data center, they could also transform the computer experience for all of us. “Project Blackbox symbolizes a big bet we’re making as a company,” Papadopoulos explains. “It’s a bet that the billions and billions of client machines we’ll have in the future—desktops, handhelds, iPods, whatever—will spend most of their time interacting with the network.” These devices will have little need to store and run common software applications the way most computers do today. Instead they will simply access programs online that enable word processing, spreadsheets, and so on.

This transition is already well on its way, under names such as grid, utility or cloud computing. More and more people use Internet services for e-mail (such as Hotmail), blogging (Blogger), social networking (MySpace), mapping (Google Earth) and other tasks. They do not host the software on their own machines; they just link to it when they need it. Papadopoulos compares the movement to what happened with electricity a century ago: very few of us keep a generator in the basement anymore; we just plug into the power grid and consume electricity as needed.

Powering the Cloud

If cloud computing is the future, the Net will have to get a lot bigger, fast, and Project Blackbox could play a crucial role. Of course, Papadopoulos says, the Internet already has many computational power plants, in the form of big, institutional data centers crammed with hundreds of computers in floor-to-ceiling racks.

The problem is that the generating capacity of these plants is slipping further and further behind the growth in demand. Each new data center has to be custom-designed and specially installed, computer by computer, in a process that can take years and cost tens of millions of dollars. Once up and running, the centers cost a fortune to operate, both because the computer rooms tend to be carved out of high-rent office space and because they require massive air-conditioning around the clock to cool the sea of power-hungry microprocessors. As Jonathan Schwartz, Sun’s chief executive officer, put it at the Project Blackbox debut ceremony, “Just about every chief information officer and start-up I meet says they’re crippled by data-center energy and space constraints.”

Sun’s goal is to offer a way out. The big companies such as Qwest, Level 3, Akamai and Google that erect the huge server farms that support the Internet’s ever skyrocketing traffic could add capacity much faster by linking together the prefab containers, saving millions of dollars in the process. They and other firms could also sprinkle Blackboxes around in numerous other places to create nodes in the expanding grid.

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