Containers: Scalability in a Can

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The need for rapid scalability has reached a fever pitch, both for new cloud providers looking to draw customers and traditional data centers seeking to leverage legacy infrastructure.

But since virtualization only gets you so far before actual physical resources become constrained, more and more CIOs are looking at modular or containerized solutions for quick and easy expansion.

According to Gartner analyst David Cappuccio, interest in containers will increase in 2011 for two reasons: First, they provide for a more gradual increase in capability without the time, expense and complexity of building and outfitting an entirely new facility. And secondly, the newest designs from HP and Dell, as well as up-and-comers like BladeRoom and NXGen, look less like actual shipping containers and more like small stand-alone centers. Now that high-profile customers like Microsoft have taken to modular designs, the industry should climb steadily over the next year.

Despite their stream-lined architecture, however, container systems are not free of design and integration issues. A major stumbling block has been effective cooling of the very tight server environments inside the container. Traditionally, this has been addressed with water cooling, which requires a fair amount of plumbing and refrigeration either within or outside the container.

But some of the latest designers have figured out how to use air cooling more effectively-a development that not only preserves the inner workings of hardware components, but allows the container to take advantage of ambient air to lower energy costs. SGI's new ICE Cube system features automated fan control that adjusts airflow based on outside conditions, while the Natural FreeCooling unit from AST Modular features a half-height cooling system that preserves space within the container without compromising its portability.

All of this modularity is having an effect on traditional data center design as well. New York's Telehouse, for one, is offering custom-built green facilities that can be up and running within a week, provided you have a concrete slab ready to go. The company says its Data Center Anywhere (DCA) program provides the quick scalability of a container system, but with enough flexibility to meet unique data or infrastructure needs. The facility can also be disassembled and reassembled to meet changing needs.

Container systems are seen primarily as adjuncts to bricks and mortar facilities, although some of the latest centers can only be described as warehouses for containerized resources. For cloud providers in particular, the container is a welcome means to meet service requirements. It remains to be seen, though, whether traditional enterprises opt for traditional infrastructure, more modularity or wholesale outsourcing to the cloud.