SGI rolls out (more) data center containers
Three ICE Cubes shy of full tray
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'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.
The ones that are available today are based on the original ICE Cubes, which were designed to have two rows of half-depth Rackable Systems machines inside of the 20 or 40 foot containers. There are three models of these today, which allow for 24 or 28 racks in a 40-footer (one has a vestibule and the other doesn't) or 12 racks in a 20-footer. This design has radiators to move cold are near the servers, and the hot air from the back of the servers is blown across the radiators, cooling it before it is sucked back into the servers to cool them.
The new containers, which you can see outlined in the table below alongside the old ICE Cubes, are designed to house all of SGI's servers, not just the half-depth Rackable machines.
Not quite a full tray of ICE Cubes — yet.
The new ICE Cubes are being called universal containers to differentiate them from the old models. The systems have their own fans instead of the container-level fans and radiators used in the original ICE Cubes; they also have power and cooling along the top of the container. The 40-footer versions of the universal containers have to be chilled with water, but the 20-footer has an air-cooled option that brings in air from the outside.
For the maximum compute density SGI can bring to bear in a container, you go with the IC4016UP, which has custom 60U racks that can support gear burning up to 45 kilowatts per rack and, using the new 12-core Opteron 6100 processors, can cram 46,080 cores into a container. Manel says SGI has done a proof of concept that demonstrates it can put in a combination of CPU and GPU computing and cope with 1 megawatt of power draw in this container. Some of the racks are fixed, while others have aisles that let servers be rolled in and locked in place. The IC4024UD container is optimized for storage, and using SGI's InfiniteStorage arrays houses in 24 49U racks, up to 29.8 petabytes of disk capacity can be crammed into a 40-footer.
The Universal Air Container, IC2008UA, is perhaps the most interesting one and no doubt is derived from work with the US Army. This 20-footer has an adiabatic cooling system - meaning you spray water on a radiator and blow outside air across it to cool the air - for desert environments. You need a garden hose to use this system, but in a lot of geographies, just bringing in the outside air will be enough. This container can house eight 44U roll-in racks.
SGI did not provide pricing for the containers, explaining that they are highly customized deals. (Isn't the point of having a product line to get away from customization?) But what Manel did say is that SGI has figured out that using its own engineering department to install plumbing and electric is way too expensive, and now, it subcontracts that work out to professionals who cost a lot less than its own engineers. That means SGI has more wiggle room to give you a discount on installation fees. ®