A Skeptical Look at Containers
May 9th, 2008 By: Rich Miller
The “data center in a box” approach to container computing has been controversial from the start. The merits and drawbacks of packing servers into shipping containers have been vigorously debated from day one (see Sun’s Blackbox: Game Changer or Niche Product? from October 2006). Some of the industry’s largest players are embracing the concept, especially Microsoft (MSFT).
But the skeptics remain many, and their critiques are summarized by ComputerWorld, which outlines six reasons containers won’t work. Eric Lai interviewed data center professionals and consultants, and reports that they “were individually impressed with some parts of Microsoft’s plan, (but) also expressed skepticism that the idea will work in the long term.”
Here are the weaknesses in the container model cited in the ComputerWorld article:
- Managing power for a large container installation is more challenging than believed, and raises the risk of harmonics that can affect power quality.
- Servers in containers are more likely to be damaged in transit.
- The power and network connections represent a single point of failure, a point recently noted by the Uptime Institute when it gave Blackbox/Sun MD a Tier II rating.
- Microsoft’s planned “lights out” operation and reliance on remote monitoring raises the likelihood that containers will fail and need to be replaced.
- Containers are a temporary solution, a “short, ephemeral model” as one source puts it.
- Microsoft’s plans for air-side economization – using outside air to cool the data center – don’t work well in all climates.
None of these issues are new, and Microsoft says it is aware of the challenges that accompany the “container farm” approach. “Half of the people say this is the greatest thing they’d ever heard. The other half say this will never work inside a data center,” Manos told ComputerWorld. “But the fact of the matter is that this does work.”
Have we ever had a new technology introduction that didn’t have its skeptics?
I think that a lot of these negative comments about container technology are from a perspective that is overly comprehensive or doesn’t include the very same issues as applied to “traditional” solutions.
The fact is that container technology gives us a new tool for the box (no pun intended). They certainly are not an ideal fit for every application (no different than any other technology). They do though, offer compelling alternatives for many applications.
For every negative comment about containers mentioned in the post, I can easily imagine a direct counter position. I’ll bet the author could as well. It’s not likely that intelligent people will intentionally choose a solution that brings more disadvantages than advantages.
Container technology is a development that I think holds great promise for many applications and I’m delighted to see such momentum building behind this option. With that said, it’s always healthy to have the contrarian opinions on the table, so I welcome the author’s viewpoint.
More solutions, more options, more choices… this is always a good thing.