University of Michigan's EcoPOD Goes Double-wide

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Now, when I say "double-wide" I'm not talking about a new television reality TV show that is filmed in a trailer park with folks like Bubba, Sally May or Jethro; I'm talking about a new EcoPOD deployment by the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.


This is the biggest EcoPOD system I have yet seen and there are a number of advantages to the EcoPOD approach. The disadvantage has been that buildings aren't wired yet for EcoPOD and there weren't a lot of them in market (IT folks typically don't like being first). But with a large university taking this route and likely turning out an increasing number of students/advocates that like this, this should be the first big step in years to change the data center and it is actually working. A year ago I said that the EcoPODs would eventually change the data center. Well, this announcement means that is finally happening.


Let's revisit the EcoPOD idea as we end this week and our minds shift to weekend activities.


The EcoPOD


A number of vendors make variants of this, but HP has been aggressively chasing this potential market for years and is one of the few that is enterprise-class. The concept was a data center that could be trailered and the first one of these I saw was on the Microsoft campus and it fell out of its glass house as a computer research initiative. Initially, products like this were conceived as emergency data centers that could be wheeled up, connected to an always-running water hose for cooling (they made a rather expensive water heater) and implemented in the time it took to wire it to the infrastructure.


However, the idea advanced as a way to build data centers that could be rapidly replaced or updated. Often the problem with data centers, which tend to be in the center of buildings, is that major upgrades exceed the room's thermal capacity resulting in massive costs or hard limits to how much technology can be added on premise.


The EcoPOD approach moves the data center outside or into an open warehouse or parking space and it rolls in on a trailer prebuilt by the supplying vendor. Once the location is wired, upgrading it becomes more natural as you add or change equipment because the pod is designed to be replaced and it is only the cables and pipes connecting it that may have to be upgraded infrequently to handle more electrical power, more cooling liquid (often water) or more data traffic. This suggests that when someone wires and plumbs for one of these things, it might be wise to anticipate doubling the capacity for all items in anticipation of later growth.


Inside the EcoPOD are the switches, servers and storage models needed for the deployment. It is also modular and can easily be replaced for service or upgrades. The end result is a highly flexible solution that can move or morph with the business without incurring massive restructuring charges.


If I were I specifying a data center today, I'd likely try to go down this route if only to make sure I could fix mistakes rather than pretend someone else made them.




What makes this new University of Michigan HP EcoPOD interesting is that it is substantially larger than the house-trailer-sized first efforts. This is arguably the first, second-generation EcoPOD and the University of Michigan was looking for a second-generation solution (typically those who buy first-generation solutions of this scale are paying dearly to fix all of the initial problems).


This is two trailers put together much like you would create a double-wide trailer home and once you start connecting pods like this, there is theoretically no end to how big one of these could get. While this adds some complexity in the move it makes, the result is potentially more efficient and easier to work with because you can perform broad changes and maintenance without going in and out of lots of pods; you can just stay and work in the big one.


In this case, it is also a showcase of HP's ecological focus as it uses outdoor air to cool the equipment for three-fourths of the year, cutting down electrical costs about $600,000 annually. Schools are on tight budgets and the $600,000 savings coupled with the second-generation nature of this HP offering is what drove University of Michigan to select HP over the other bidders.


Wrapping Up: Sign of the Future


From modular homes to modular data centers, the modular approach to problems appears to be a keystone for the technology of the future. Having solutions in a number of markets that can grow, shrink or change based on the needs of an IT client and its customers will likely help define the winning vendors from the losing ones.


This double-wide, second-generation EcoPOD from HP showcases that HP is positioning for the data center future. It also allows the company to argue that its solution is at least a generation ahead of Oracle's, which I'm sure helps put a smile on Meg Whitman's face. Since the University of Michigan is saving $600,000 a year, it is likely that its smile is bigger. Making customers happier than you are is part of what creates a successful company and while Whitman needs more events like this, I've got to say this one isn't a bad start.

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