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HP ramps up containerized data centers

Punching holes in the factory wall

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HP has been dabbling in containerized data centers since the summer of 2008, and is now taking the idea seriously enough to punch a few holes in the walls of its Houston PC and server factory and create an assembly line dedicated to pumping out its Performance Optimized Datacenters — aka PODs.

The PODs are based on standard 20-foot or 40-foot shipping containers, which are equipped with racks for servers, storage, and networking gear plus links to external power and cooling. The idea is to cram as much gear as possible into the containers and then either plop them outside in the open air or rack 'em and stack 'em in a fairly simple and cheap building (like a warehouse) that's more about physical security than it is about keeping the rain off the PODs.

In late 2006, Sun Microsystems and its Blackbox data center stole the idea from the US military (and for all we know, the US military stole it from somewhere else). Eventually Verari Systems (gone bust), Rackable Systems (now Silicon Graphics), Dell, IBM, and HP jumped into the containerized data center racket.

A number of big customers are using them — Microsoft and NASA Ames are two biggies. HP just sold smaller POD installations to Purdue University in the States and another one to iVEC, a consortium that provides HPC oomph to four universities in Western Australia. But containerized data centers are not exactly a volume business — at least not yet.

HP, however, is getting its factory-act together now so that it can ramp up production and beat others to market.

There are two sides to HP's Houston factory — one side makes PCs and servers that ship directly out to customers or to channel partners, and the other side is a custom installation facility called Factory Express, where any weird configurations and software stacks are put together for customers and burned-in before they are shipped out.

Ed Turkel, manager of worldwide HPC marketing for HP's Enterprise Servers, Storage, and Networking group, says that HP has now punched two giant holes in the wall at the end of the Factory Express section of the facility and set up two bays for making and burning-in PODs. This addition is called the POD-Works, of course.

HP's POD-Works Factory

HP's POD-Works assembly line for containerized data centers (click to enlarge)

There are two bays in the POD-Works. One bay has enough room to allow HP's techies to assemble two 20-footer (10 racks) or 40-footer (22 racks) PODs using the custom gear coming out of the Factory Express line. The other bay has room for five PODs, and has three megawatts of power dedicated to it so up to five full PODs with all their gear can be powered up and burned in before they are shipped out to customers.

The 10,000 square foot facility will allow HP to ramp up POD production significantly to meet what Turkel says is growing demand. HP can ship a POD, complete with its iron, in between 6 to 12 weeks from the moment a purchase order is received.

The PODs don't come cheap, mind you. A 40-footer with the racks, power, and cooling features all welded into place will cost you a cool $1.5m — and that doesn't include servers, storage, and switches.

But, says Turkel, in a lot of places, that $1.5m is about a fifth the cost of building a brick and mortar data center, and there's no way you can bring a data center online in two to three months, like you can a POD. ®

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