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Sun to Deliver Self-Contained "Blackbox" Data Centers

Published: October 17, 2006

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Whenever IT managers complain about their jobs, one of the things that always tops the list of their complaints is the time, money, and annoyance that comes from simply integrating the servers, storage, and networking gear they acquire. If integration is a big pain point, then so is building out data centers. In many cases, companies simply do not have the power and cooling to add more gear to their data centers without causing a meltdown. Enter Sun Microsystems with Project Blackbox.

At a launch event in San Francisco today, alongside various server and storage announcements, Sun will unveil Blackbox, which is a new product offering for the company, yet one that is a logical extension of the integration and pre-configuration work that system makers like Sun have been delivering for years.

A decade ago, custom configured servers were considered to be a major advantage. But server customization didn't really solve systems integration problems--it made them more complex. After getting what they wanted for so many years, companies have decided that less is more, and that what they really want are stock configurations. And today, most vendors offer standard configurations in small, medium, large, and extra large sizes, with more processing, memory, and disk capacity as size increases.

This greatly simplifies server ordering, but it only solves one aspect of the integration problem. So all of the major server vendors that do heavy volumes with big businesses have long since created pre-configured racks of servers, which can include rack-mounted as well as blade servers (the terms are not mutually exclusive), storage arrays, and switching gear. These are called "bright clusters" in the supercomputer industry, but the concept is applicable to commercial servers as well. With Blackbox, Sun is taking integration beyond the sides of a server rack to the walls of the data center.

"With Blackbox, you feed it, chill it with water, and it just does stuff for you," explains Anil Gadre, Sun's chief marketing officer.

Blackboxes will be on sale starting today, but Gadre says that the final products are not expected to be generally available in the summer of 2007. To create a Blackbox, Sun will pack a baby data center into an industry-standard, 20-foot cargo shipping container that has been painted black and emblazoned with the Sun logo. These are the containers that trucks haul around on the highways of the world and that ships move across the oceans.

There will be different Blackbox flavors for various kinds of computing and storage, but the idea, according to Gadre, is that companies just plug these black containers with the Sun logo on them into their networks, into their electricity, and into the water-cooling facilities of their data centers and treat them like "black boxes." Sun is not referring to the black boxes that are in aircraft and recovered after crashes (not a good image for a data center), but rather the engineering usage of the phrase black box, which means a sealed device that performs some function and about which you know nothing about the insides and--here's the important bit--you just don't care, either, because it just works.

In a conference call pre-announcing Blackbox to the press, Gadre recounted a wisecrack that Dave Douglas, one of the engineers on the project, quipped: It takes longer to spec out and build a data center than it took to create YouTube and sell it to Google for $1.65 billion. That's funny, but it is also true. And that means companies have a tough time building out their data centers to match the growth of their business.

The initial Blackboxes will be aimed at companies deploying Web infrastructure or high performance computing workloads. Sun has a few initial configurations it has put together. The first consists of a cargo container that has been tricked out with special cooling facilities that can house either 120 of Sun's T2000 or 240 of its T1000 "Niagara" servers. The former is a 2U rack-mounted box, while the latter is a 1U box; both use the multi-cored Sparc T1 processors and can run either Solaris 10 or Linux. Another configuration will house 240 of Sun's "Galaxy" Opteron-based servers, sporting 7 TB of main memory and 480 dual-core Opteron 2000 series processors. That would be just under 5 teraflops of peak theoretical number-crunching performance. Using its "Thumper" Sun Fire X4500 data servers, a Blackbox could be equipped with 1.4 petabytes of disk storage. Sun is also saying that it will deliver a Blackbox setup that can drive between 23,000 and 30,000 Sun Ray thin clients and between 10,000 and 13,000 active end users. Sun is not going to mix the contents inside of a Blackbox. You pick one and that is what you get. Only by minimizing customization can Sun get economies of scale and, therefore, make a buck.

Aside from having the virtue of speed--Gadre hopes that Sun will be able to build a Blackbox and ship it in a matter of weeks, ready to roll, so to speak--Blackboxes have the virtue of density. Because Sun is using water cooling, and actually employing the sides of the container to draw heat out of the data center inside, it can cram the components a lot more tightly than it could in an air-cooled data center. Gadre estimates that across various storage and server scenarios, a Blackbox can deliver the computing capability that requires about 10,000 square feet of data center space--and do so using about a third of the space, at about one-fifth of the cost (including building facilities), and save about 20 percent on power and cooling.

One of the reasons Blackbox works is that air is a terrible conductor of heat. But once you adopt water-cooling for the server racks and make use of the container itself as a heat absorber that interfaces to water chilling plants--the same kinds that data centers use to make conditioned air--you can really pack the IT equipment into a smaller space.

Sun is not exactly sure how customers will deploy Blackboxes, but Gadre says that they could be left in a parking lot or stuffed into a secure warehouse if data center security is an issue. What he didn't say, and what is obvious, is that you could build a secure garage of sorts housing multiple units and make that your data center. Because the baby data centers are in cargo containers, they can be stacked, too, so the data center can go vertical--which you cannot do in a data center so easily today. The Blackbox unit has obvious applications for the military and for non-military government operations where emergency computing capacity has to be deployed. It is not hard to envision a disaster recovery business based on portable data centers using Blackboxes. (This idea is not new, by the way. European companies were driving baby data centers around on lorries and renting them out to companies experiencing outages in the 1980s.) In keeping with its green theme, Sun also foresees companies plunking down lots of Blackboxes next to an electric generating plant. Sun will itself use Blackboxes to build out its Sun Grid utility computing farm.

The Blackbox container has been tricked out with a sensor array, alarms, and a global positioning system, and while it is not made to be moved around frequently, it is equipped with shock absorbers that allow a truck to move it around. The unit has front and rear doors and a central aisle on the inside to service the gear. Sun has even tried to patent some of the cooling tricks it created for the container.

Sun has not figured out prices for Blackboxes yet. And you can bet it will try to charge a slight premium for the computing. But probably not a big premium. "Containers are a commodity, and what goes inside a Blackbox is our standard gear. So we're not planning to make this onerous," explained Gadre. Assuming an average price of $5,500 for a configured Galaxy server, that comes to $1.32 million for the servers inside a single Blackbox--not including racks, networking, power and cooling, and such. It is safe to say that it will be a couple million dollars to get a Blackbox. But, given the grief of integration and the benefits of mobility, density, and efficiency, there is no question that some companies are going to give this Blackbox idea a spin.



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Editors: Dan Burger, Timothy Prickett Morgan, Alex Woodie
Publisher and Advertising Director: Jenny Delroy
Advertising Sales Representative: Kim Reed
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