Sun thinks inside the box for datacenter system

Sun claims its Project Blackbox offers a mobile datacenter at a fraction of the cost and 20 percent more power efficiency

To help enterprises with expanding datacenter needs, Sun Microsystems decided to think inside the box.

Sun's Project Blackbox crams multiple servers and storage hardware into a box the size of a semi-trailer truck that can be literally driven up to a company, plugged in, and turned on.

The Blackbox, available in either a 20-foot or 40-foot long shipping container, can be configured to hold up to 250 Sun Fire servers or up to 2  petabytes worth of storage devices or 7 terabytes worth of memory. The equipment runs on Sun's Solaris 10 operating system and uses water cooling to dissipate heat from the processors. This kind of rapid deployment of extra computing power will address many of the needs of the modern enterprise data center concerned with performance but also energy and space efficiency, said Anil Gadre, chief marketing officer for Sun.

"Basically, it rolls up to you, you hook up the power, you hook up your network and you hook up the chiller water lines and you’re ready to go," Gadre said. "It's like prefab housing."

Sun went with water cooling rather than air-cooling technology because the equipment would be tightly compacted into the shipping container and there would not be enough space in and around the hardware for air to circulate, Gadre said.

"Air is incredibly inefficient at cooling, which is why datacenters need as much headroom and space around them that they do," he said.

By arranging the hardware inside the shipping container, the mobile datacenter offers comparable computing power at one-fifth the cost per square foot of a traditional datacenter.

Sun is to display a working prototype of Project Blackbox at its offices in Menlo Park, California Tuesday. It plans to have the product commercially available by mid-2007.

It sees its target markets as rapidly-growing Web 2.0 companies that need to quickly add servers to keep their sites up, as well as high-performance computing centers, military deployments or other instances in which an enterprise needs to quickly ramp up computing capacity, Gadre said.

Some of Sun's competitors are taking other approaches to the problem of unwieldy datacenter operations. IBM rolled out this month its Scalable Modular Data Center for Small Businesses, which enables enterprises to build a datacenter quickly using modular components. IBM also launched a Thermal Analysis for High-Performance Computing service that determines what heating and cooling issues a datacenter may face and how to head off problems.

IBM cited Gartner research that said that by 2009, 70 percent of datacenter facilities will fail to meet operational and capacity requirements without some level of renovation, expansion or relocation.

Research firm IDC, meanwhile, reports that by 2007 spending on power and cooling datacenters will exceed that of the computer hardware itself.

While not providing specific pricing information, Sun claims its Project Blackbox system will be available at one one-hundredth of the initial cost of traditional datacenters with the same computing power, and offer 20 percent more power efficiency.

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