In a recent post on his blog, Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz coyly hinted at a rethinking of the corporate data center. “Now I understand that IT infrastructure has to be put somewhere,” he wrote. “But the whole concept of a datacenter is a bit of an anachronism. We certainly don’t put power generators in precious city center real estate, or put them on pristine raised flooring with luxuriant environmentals, or surround them with glass and dramatic lighting to host tours for customers … Surely it’s time we all started revisiting some basic assumptions.”
It wasn’t hard to see that Schwartz had something up his sleeve.
Today, in addition to announcing an expanded push into data center virtualization, Sun is revealing that a year from now it plans to begin selling readymade data centers in shipping containers at a starting price of a half million bucks a pop. Designed by supercomputing genius Danny Hillis, the data-center-in-a-box will, Schwartz told the New York Times’s John Markoff, “be attractive to customers that need to expand computing capacity quickly.”
The container, designed to hold up to 245 server computers, can be plopped anywhere that has water and electricity hookups. “Once plugged in,” reports Markoff, “it requires just five minutes to be ready to run applications.”
Welcome to trailer park computing.
The containerized data center is one more manifestation of the fundamental shift that is transforming corporate computing – the shift from the Second Age client-server model of fragmented, custom-built computing components to the Third Age model of standardized, utility-class infrastructure. As this shift plays out, the center of corporate computing will move from the personal computer upstream to the data center. And, inevitably, what happened to the PC – standardization and commoditization – will happen to the data center as well. What is Sun’s data-center-in-a-box but an early example of the data center as a standardized commodity, an off-the-shelf, turnkey black box? Indeed, the intitiative’s codename is Project Blackbox – and the prototype container that Sun is showing off is painted black.
The effort reflects Hillis’s belief that computing is fated to become a utility, writes Markoff:
Long an advocate of the concept of utility computing, analogous to the way electricity is currently delivered, Mr. Hillis said he realized that large companies were wasting significant time assembling their own systems from small building blocks. “It struck me that everyone is rolling their own in-house and doing manufacturing in-house,” he said. “We realized that this obviously is something that is shippable.”
In many ways, the containerized data center resembles the standardized electricity-generation system that Thomas Edison sold to factories at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Manufacturers bought a lot of those systems to replace their complex, custom-built hydraulic or steam systems for generating mechanical power. Edison’s off-the-shelf powerplant turned out to be a transitional product – though a very lucrative one. Once the distribution network – the electric grid – had matured, factories abandoned their private generating stations altogether, choosing to get their power for a monthly fee from utilities, the ultimate black boxes.
Something similar will happen – is happening – with computing, but how exactly computing assets end up being divided between companies and utilities remains to be seen. In the meantime, commodity data centers, in various physical and virtual forms, should prove increasingly popular to companies looking to radically simplify their computing infrastructure and reduce the single biggest cost of corporate computing today: labor.
UPDATE: Dan Farber covers the launch of the Blackbox, while Jonathan Schwartz makes Sun’s marketing pitch and Greg Papadopoulos puts the machine into the context of data-center evolution. Blackfriars calls it “the ultimate computing commoditization play,” saying it “changes the economics” of data center construction. Techdirt is skeptical about the size of the market: “The sweet spot of companies for whom this will be ideal seems small. Its impact on Sun’s business won’t be as significant as what it represents, the continuing commoditization of corporate infrastructure.” Sun’s Tim Bray writes, “I have no idea how big the market is. But I’m glad we built it, because it is just totally drop-dead fucking cool.” (Question for Miss Manners: Is it kosher for a corporate blogger to use the f-word?)