Containers as an Energy Efficiency Tool

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Microsoft’s decision to adopt data center containers in its next-generation facility in Chicago provided a way to optimize the company’s computing infrastructure for extraordinary density and scalability. By housing equipment in 40-foot shipping containers, Microsoft gained another major benefit: energy efficiency.

At a time when the industry is focused on green data centers, the data center containers used in Microsoft’s testing are exceptionally efficient, according to the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) metric developed by The Green Grid.

“On the proof-of-concept we ran we saw PUE numbers come in at 1.3, and if you compare that with historical data centers, it’s very, very low,” said Daniel Costello, Microsoft’s Director of Data Center Research. “Most data centers around the world would be 1.6 to 2.0.”

In a presentation at last week’s Structure 08 conference in San Francisco, Costello said the containers’ efficient power architecture allows Microsoft to put between 1,000 and 3,000 servers in a container, based upon the configuration.


Rackable (RACK) is also focused on energy-efficient containers, and has designed a new low-power server, the XE2208, specifically for use with its ICE Cube line of data center containers. The XE2208 doubles the number of cores in the ICE Cube, along with four times the storage capacity. A rack loaded with XE2208 servers is expected to use 16 kilowatts of power, according to Rackable, meaning a fully-packed ICE Cube container with 28 racks will have 22,400 cores and require 448 kilowatts of power.

Microsoft’s Costello believes there will be more designs customized for containers. “Moving forward, I think we need to start looking at designing systems specifically for this form factor,” he said. “It’s my belief that every major vendor will have a (container) product available in the marketplace within the next 12-24 months.”

Costello said containers provide flexibility in incorporating renewable energy sources into your data center infrastructure. “Small, self-contained remote deployments can go anywhere with power and network,” said Costello. “That’s a huge advantage. We’ll start to marry technologies such as solar power generation, fuel cells, hydro and wind in conjunction with a container.”

“What about one data center in every town on the planet, with that data center (being) a container that’s self-sufficient from a power perspective, and all you do is connect network to it?” said Costello, who foresaw a “completely off-the-grid data center we can deploy to towns across the globe.”

Sun Microsystems (JAVA) is also thinking about containers and renewable energy. At this year’s CeBIT trade show Sun demonstrated a solar-powered Sun MD S20 unit, hooking its portable 20-foot “Blackbox” shipping container to a solar array of photovoltaic panels that was about 65 square meters (about 700 square feet) in area to produce about 10 kilowatts of power for the equipment.

While that is barely enough to power a high-density rack, Sun is also offering a combo of a Blackbox and the new Powerhouse portable generation unit from Active Power (ACPW). Each “power in a box” PowerHouse container system includes a UPS system, switchgear, a 1900 kVA diesel generator and fuel tanks.

About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor-in-chief of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.