Mobile Data Centres Could Be Runaway Success


An IDC analyst says that interest in the mobile data centres is high, but the global recession is holding down demand

When colocation company i/o Data Centers cuts the ribbon on its new 538,000-square-foot data centre on 25 June in downtown Phoenix, Arizona, included inside the facility will be an ICE Cube containerised data center from SGI.

The 40-foot mobile data center was ordered by an i/o Data Centers customer that opted for SGI offering rather than a more traditional data centre setup, said Anthony Wanger, president and founder of i/o Data Centers. Other customers also are looking in that direction.

“I have a number of them asking, ‘Can you support a Cube?’” Wanger said.

Mobile data centres have been around in one form or another for years, but got a boost in 2006 when Sun Microsystems introduced its Project Blackbox, the first such containerised facility from a major OEM.

Since then, others have joined the fray, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, SGI and Verari Systems. All have reported interest—and some sales—from customers in the mobile data centres as ways of quickly and cheaply adding needed computing power. They also fit in well with the move toward more modular data centre designs, particularly among service providers and Web 2.0 companies.

The offerings are essentially standard shipping containers—either 20 or 40 feet long—that hold the data centre infrastructure, from servers to networking to storage devices, and can also include power and cooling systems. They can be shipped via tractor-trailers, trains, ships or planes. Some can support a variety of systems—from the vendor and third-parties—while others are limited in what they offer.

Michelle Bailey, an analyst with IDC, said the containerised data centre market is still in its infancy, and shipments reflect that. Bailey estimates that somewhere between 50 and 75 mobile data centres were sold worldwide last year.

The market also has been hampered by the global recession, which is forcing businesses to cut back or delay data centre projects, which could include using mobile data centres.

“I think the [economy] does suppress the need for containers,” Bailey said.

However, once the economy stabilizes and begins to grow, the mobile data center space should see an uptick and become a healthy market, she said. IDC estimates that by 2013, annual shipments of containers could grow to 300 to 350 units.

Still, officials with the various vendors say there is interest and they are shipping units. Steve Cumings, director of marketing for HP’s Scalable Computing and Infrastructure group, said interest in the HP POD (Performance Optimised Data Centre) has grown quickly since it was introduced in 2008.

“We attribute [the interest] to the consistency of data center challenges across the industry,” Cumings said. “Problems of capacity limitations in cooling, power and space are very common. Our expectation is that over time, the POD will mostly be purchased by a wide variety of enterprise and scale-out customers, but there is also significant demand across the board, from municipalities, medium[-sized] businesses and military organisations.”

Sun has boasted several customers wins with its Modular Datacenter—nee Project Blackbox—including Hansen Transmissions, which was able to get an MD S20 up and running in a new factory in China within weeks, said Liz From, strategic marketing manager for Sun.

IBM has deployed most of the PMDCs (Portable Modular Data Centers) it’s shipped in Europe, which is ahead of the curve in container adoption, said Brian Canney, global services director at IBM. They also are addressing a range of applications, Canney said.

“We’re not looking to replace data centres with containers,” he said. “We design and build data centers all over the world. The portable data centre is a part of that.”

Mobility is a key factor for the military and other sectors, while for others, the containers are a way of bringing in temporary compute capabilities for businesses until they can get new data centre facilities online.

Web 2.0 companies, such as Google, also are looking for ways to build their data centers in a modular fashion. Containers are an option. Microsoft last year was reportedly looking at Dell’s containers for a new data centre in Chicago, though that appears to still be uncertain. Microsoft 22 June hired Kevin Timmons, formerly of Yahoo, as its new head of data centres.

Officials with the various vendors said the economy has had some positive and negative impact on interest in containers. George Skaff, vice president of marketing at SGI—former Rackable Systems—said adoption of the ICE Cube has been slowed, thanks in large part to the economy. HP’s Cumings said he has seen a mix.

“On the one hand, capital is constrained, which you’d assume has an impact on all purchases,” Cumings said. “However … many customers still need the additional data centre capacity, and the POD is one of the most cost-effective ways to obtain it. So, interest and demand in the POD remains strong.”

IDC analyst Bailey said there does seem to be interest among businesses. A recent survey by IDC indicated that 70 percent had an interest in investigating containers, and a high percentage also had an awareness about containers, both of which were higher than she had expected. It has helped to have such big names as Dell, HP, IBM and Sun rolling out offerings, Bailey said.

Eventually containers will find homes in those Web 2.0 and hosted environments, as well as with enterprises for such jobs as temporary compute situations, for disaster recovery and for businesses that have tight time-to-market issues, she said.

Wanger, the president of i/o Data Centers, said that for hosted environments like the one his company offers, mobile data centres are only one option for his customers among others such as suites, cages and cabinets.

“We don’t think they will replace [traditional] data centers,” he said. “They’re yet another tool.”

While the containers offer advantages, many still need other aspects provided by i/o Data Centers, such as generators, fuel, water chillers and water supplies, Wanger said.

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