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SGI rolls out (more) data center containers

Three ICE Cubes shy of full tray

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Containerized data centers are like blade servers. Both are ideas that seem to have obvious technical merit, and both are taking a lot more time to go mainstream than many had expected. Undaunted by the slow uptake of its ICE Cube containers, Silicon Graphics still thinks there is money in dense-pack IT gear crammed into 20 and 40 footer shipping containers, and today, it is broadening the lineup so it can host a wider variety of gear, not just the super-dense half-depth servers designed by the former Rackable Systems.

The Rackable Systems half of the SGI collective built what is arguably the most successful containerized data center biz. Sun Microsystems gets credit for commercializing containerized data centers with its Blackbox containers, launched in October 2006 with a whole lot of PR from the top brass, but the idea came from various militaries, which have to ship and support IT gear in harsh environments. Sun's take on containers was that as long as there was water for cooling and electricity to power the machines and the chillers, you could plunk containerized data centers anywhere, and building such a data center would take up a third the space and have one-fifth the cost of building a new brick-and-mortar data center.

Others jumped into the fray, Rackable with its Concentro in March 2007 and then Integrated Concentro Environment Cube, or ICE Cube, in September 2007. Rackable's rival in the high-density, DC-powered server racket, Verari Systems, jumped in soon thereafter with its Forrest containers (which are wrapping around Cisco Systems' blade servers at the NASA Ames Research Center for its "Pleiades" compute cloud), and within a year, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM had to jump in.

What nobody seems to know is how many companies or government facilities have actually deployed containerized data centers. The number of customers may not be high, but the number of servers with shipping containers wrapped around them could be.

Bill Manel, vice president of marketing at SGI, is not going to ship and tell, but did say that SGI has a big container deal with Microsoft and last December secured a deal with the US Army for its Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) program. You would think that the Army would have to buy the 40-footers just so it can paint all that on the side of the containers, but it is going with the 20-footers for its modular data centers.

SGI has also sold ICE Cubes to a service provider in Phoenix called i/o Data Centers, and the picture below of the inside of an ICE Cube comes from a media-related business of an unnamed telecommunications company.

SGI Ice Cube Dual Row Container

SGI's ICE Cube: Blue servers, trying to make green.

"We are now seeing the interest increase," says Manel, who adds that SGI is getting involved in several engagements per week that have ICE Cube containers involved in some fashion, what he characterized as an order of magnitude more interest than a year ago, before Rackable ate SGI and took its name. Some of the change can be attributed to the SGI having a much larger server customer base, and many of those customers being government agencies that are flush with stimulus money. But some of it is just it takes time to change people's view of what a data center is. "It takes people a long time to make changes, even when the value is clear."

SGI believes enough in the container idea to have spent a lot of time engineering new products, some of which are available now and others of which will be available in the third quarter.

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