When the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) wanted to increase its computing capacity last year, it considered a satellite datacenter or an extension to the existing building, but in the end, it chose a faster and more novel approach: It ordered a datacenter in a box.
The center, which does high-energy physics research for the U.S. Department of Energy, was one of the first customers for Sun Microsystems' Project Blackbox, which takes standard shipping containers 20 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet (6.1m by 2.4m by 2.4m) and turns them into mini datacenters that can be delivered and operational in a few weeks, according to Sun.
SLAC's Blackbox was delivered in July last year and was up and running by September. Aside from a few challenges -- such as figuring out how to service the unit when it's raining -- the center is pleased with its choice and is in the process of installing a second unit.
It is one of four customers that Sun identified Tuesday to illustrate momentum for Project Blackbox. It also renamed the product the Sun Modular Datacenter, or Sun MD. The boxes start at $559,000 without the "payload," or the computers inside, and Sun will ship them around the world for an extra fee. Delivery to Amsterdam by air, for example, costs about $15,000.
SLAC turned to Project Blackbox because it needed to expand its compute capacity fairly quickly. "The datacenter here was at its capacity, especially in terms of the electrical service to the building and the amount of heat we could take back out. And the experiments needed their next year's worth of computing," said Chuck Boeheim, SLAC's assistant director of computing services.
Modifying its existing datacenter to accommodate another major electrical feed and "chiller plant" would have taken one to two years and cost several million dollars. "We also looked at doing a satellite datacenter in a smaller building, but with the approvals and lead time, that was a couple of years out as well. Blackbox was something we could do very quickly," Boeheim said.
The raw shipping containers are customized by a subcontractor, and Sun typically installs the payload before delivery. SLAC's Blackbox arrived on a flat-bed truck last July, fitted with 252 Sun Fire X2200 rack-mount servers, the same type it uses in its datacenter. Sun had also wired the servers to a Cisco Catalyst 6509 switch that SLAC provided before delivery.
Boeheim described the process in a white paper on his Web site, along with photos and time-lapse videos that show the box being hoisted into place by a crane.
Customers can put other vendors' hardware in the unit, but not all equipment will fit. SLAC bought some Dell PowerEdge 1950 servers that it wanted to put in its second Blackbox, but they were too long for the server racks. Instead it will move some existing Sun servers to the box from its datacenter, and put the Dell machines inside the building instead.
The computing center already had a 4-megawatt substation serving its area of the site. "So it was a fairly simple matter to put a 220-kilowatt power pane on the outside of that and bring up a fairly standard chiller unit and put that on a concrete pad next to the Blackbox. Both of those things could just be fork-lifted in and connected up," Boeheim said.