Welcome to the Data Center Container Hotel

Julius Neudorfer
IBM recently announced that it is delivering a containerized data center (IBM refers to their unit as a Portable Modular Data Center 'PMDC') to a new colocation site in Santa Clara, Calif., that is designed specifically for containerized data centers. The site, known as 1101 Space Park, was developed, built and operated by Pelio & Associates. Although Pelio has built and operated co-lo sites in California for the last 10 years, this is their first design for supporting containers rather than traditional raised floors and racks.

In a conversation with Les Pelio and Jon Shank of Pelio, they proffered that the lower upfront capital costs of building the container-based facility allowed them to offer lower costs to their potential customers. As one of the early colo operators offering container parking for this new breed of data center, they are offering a wide choice of electrical and mechanical systems to support containerized data centers. This new site, scheduled to become operational later this year, is fashioned as a sort of a "boutique container hotel." Like any good hotel, they offer a variety of accommodations, via a choice of support options, ranging from basic bare bones unconditioned utility power (no UPS, only generator back up) and evaporative cooled water (no mechanical chiller plant), to their optional offerings of facility-provided UPS and chilled water. They offer different levels of infrastructure redundancy (N, N+1 or 2N) for those that do not want to have their own chiller and UPS in their containers. According to Pelio, potential customers can purchase the container from IBM (or any other manufacturer) and lease the parking space there, or Pelio will purchase the containerized unit and include it in the lease price.

While the Pelio container site announcement was interesting enough by itself as a follow up to my previous post, 'Valet Parking Your Data Center,' wherein I postulated about a CTO who had purchased a containerized data center but found that it had no place to park it. The technical details of the IBM PMDC were also very worthy of note.

I also had the opportunity to talk to Steve Sams, vice president of Global Site and Facilities, Global Technology Services of IBM, about the technical details of the PMDC and the market for containerized data centers. He indicated that the market for containers is somewhat different than originally envisioned when they were first announced in 2008. IBM, HP, Dell and several other manufacturers, both large and small, had focused on high-density containers with up to 20 racks able to support up to 30 KW per rack mounted within a 40-foot container. Most of the first containers were originally designed to be supported by facility-supplied chilled water and UPS-conditioned power. These container units were anticipated to be used as large-scale building blocks as part of a massive computing, on-demand modular architecture. While some organizations may still be candidates for that vision, there seem to be only a few takers so far (such as Google and Microsoft) that can work on that scale and want to use container-based systems.

So instead of a standardized, one-size-fits-all container, IBM now offers a totally customizable choice of built-to-order 20-, 40- and even 53-foot ISO containers with a wide variety of configurations. IBM found that many of its customers want different numbers on racks and lower densities of 5-10KW (much like a traditional data center) and many different options and configurations. Some customers want the container to include its own UPS and even a self-contained DX type CRAC, while others want it to use higher densities requiring separate infrastructure support containers to provide the UPS power, and perhaps even a generator and chilled water plant. The PMDCs are now available with and without an internal UPS and also can include complete self-contained cooling systems. Additionally, IBM also offers a wide variety of separate infrastructure support containers to provide the UPS power, even a generator and chiller plant, and some of these units are stackable.

Moreover, they have even offered some lower density versions that utilize 'Natural Free Cooling' based on passive heat pipe technology for use in cooler climates. IBM claims a potential PUE as low as 1.07 (perhaps only in Canada or Greenland), but it has the potential to be extremely energy efficient in other milder climates or be used in connection with supplemental mechanical cooling in warmer climates. Interestingly, this same passive heat pipe technology can also be used in traditional data centers, but it is not common in the U.S.

IBM's wide variety of cooling options seems to be ahead of most other container offerings. Like any new technology, there will be a learning curve and the need to adopt the infrastructure to support it. Pelio's 'container hotel' is one of the early sites, its infrastructure is being built out in stages as needed, as more of its customers' containers are added. The first 4.5 megawatt feed is scheduled to be installed in February 2011, with an overall design capacity of 18 MW. A preliminary building layout I reviewed indicated parking spaces for 11, 40-foot containers and 14, 20-foot units. Remarkably, Pelio has filed a patent for the design of its container-based facility. It should be interesting to see if this patent is granted and how it intersects with Google's patent for a containerized data center.

Sams noted that IBM now has PMDCs in 14 countries and that a substantial portion of total sales are overseas. There is no question that the data center world is shifting at both ends of the spectrum. They range from self-sufficient container-size units such as the PMDC (which can be quickly deployed to developing nations, as well as to hazardous or rugged situations, such as areas of conflict or mines and oil fields), to 50-100 Megawatt supersized data centers designed for cloud computing. Whether containers are used as part of a vast cloud computing architecture or on localized, onsite autonomous systems, the computing environment and architecture are changing very rapidly and will not look the same as 5-10 years ago. Perhaps it will seem as different by the end of this decade as a 1960s mainframe-based 'glass house' looks to us today. 

The Bottom Line

It looks like the term 'mobile computing' could mean more than just smartphones. The new flexibility paradigm requires the delivery of 'computing on demand" and cloud computing, and now also includes rapidly delivering an entire data center whenever and wherever it is needed. Hopefully, there will be enough parking spots available.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jan 28, 2011 4:01 PM Matt Stansberry Matt Stansberry  says:
Nice work on this article Julius. I was really impressed with Steve Yantz's container designs for SGI/Rackable at the Gartner Conf in Vegas a few weeks back. These second-generation containerized products seem to be a lot better engineered than the initial shipping crates packed with servers. I'd like to see the longer-term economic analysis of containers to comparable traditional data center capacity. Reply

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