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Google nabs patent for Sun's Project Blackbox?

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Google now owns a patent for data centers stuffed into shipping containers. You know, data centers like Sun's Project Blackbox.

The Mountain View outfit first filed for this "Modular Data Center" patent in December 2003, and today it was rubber stamped by the US Patent Office.

The patent describes a data center based on an "intermodel shipping container". That's a shipping container that's shipped by multiple carriers. "Rack or shelf mount computing systems," the patent explains, are "mounted within the container and configured to be shipped and operated within the container".

This idea is a simple one: You could churn out these data centers from a central factory and ship them wherever they're needed. Google's data-center-in-a-box even includes "a temperature control system for maintaining the air temperature surrounding the computing systems".

In short, it sounds a lot like Project Blackbox, which has received an awful lot of press since it was unveiled in the fall of last year. The Sun website calls Blackbox "a prototype of the world's first virtualized data center - built into a shipping container and optimized to deliver extreme energy, space, and performance efficiencies". And Sun's not the only company with one of these contraptions. IBM and Rackable have built similar data centers.

According to Robert X Cringely, who wrote not one but two pieces about Google's modular data center plans in 2005, the idea didn't originate in Mountain View.

He claims it was first pitched by the Internet Archive - and that Google co-founder Larry Page attended one of the pitch meetings. Meanwhile, Sun claims that Blackbox grew out of a discussion between Sun chief technology officer Greg Papadopoulos and Danny Hills, now co-chairman and chief technology officer of Applied Minds.

Google didn't respond to our request for an interview, but as the company complains about the injustice of the patent system, it's hard to imagine it going on the offensive with its new patent. Of course, stranger things have happened.

The company also refused to say whether it was actually using this sort of data center, but two years ago Cringley reported that the company had built at least one.

What's Sun's response? It's mulling things over. "We are aware of a modular data center patent being issued to Google," a company spokeswoman said. "Our legal team is reviewing the patent, as this is a broad concept. Until that review is complete, we don't have further comment." ®

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