A Standard for Data Center Containers?

The interior of a 40-foot container inside the new Microsoft Chicago data center, packed with servers on either side of a center aisle (click to see a larger version of this image).

The interior of a 40-foot container inside the new Microsoft Chicago data center, packed with servers on either side of a center aisle.

One of the keys to the success of shipping containers is standardization, as detailed by author Marc Levinson, whose book explains how containers “made the world smaller and the world economy bigger.” Standardizing on a 40-foot size spurred the international growth of intermodal freight transport by either rail, ship or truck.

Is there a similar boom in store for data center containers? That may depend on whether the industry can agree on a standard for modular designs, including those using containers. Microsoft, for one, is doing its best to nudge the data center industry toward the use of standard Pre-Assembled Components (PACs), which is how the company describes the server-filled containers in its new Chicago data center.

Some may see Microsoft’s “container farm” as an outlier – an anomaly representing a particular approach unlikely to be replicated in other data centers. Could Microsoft’s effort instead represent a tipping point in a broader movement towards modular data center design? The company’s cloud operation is large enough to focus vendors’ attention on the concept, which could result in an ecosystem that lowers costs for end users.  

‘Standard Platform’
Microsoft aspires to create a container-based “standard platform that our industry can innovate around,” providing common interfaces and an RFP (request for proposal) process that allows many vendors to develop products and compete for business.

But Microsoft isn’t alone in this effort, and some industry executives warn that Microsoft’s vision of a containerized future may not work for everyone. Two other industry heavyweights, Digital Realty Trust and IBM, are also standardizing their designs around modular systems and repeatable designs that can drive the cost and delays out of data center construction, while leveraging the power of bulk purchasing and RFPs with large numbers attached to them.

Server-filled containers are just the beginning of Microsoft’s PAC strategy, according to Microsoft’s Daniel Costello, who said the company will also issue RFPs for containerized electrical and mechanical equipment. “For us, it’s about pre-manufactured modularization,” said Costello. “The same thing that’s happened to servers will happen to the back of the house.”

What happened with servers? When a company buys 2,000 servers at a time, server markers pay attention. And when a company plans to repeat that purchase 100 times, vendors begin jumping through hoops.

Container Competition Heats Up
When Microsoft announced its plan for a container data center in Chicago, only Sun Microsystems, Rackable Systems (SGI) and Verari had container products. With Microsoft planning to fill the Chicago site with between 250,000 and 400,000 servers – at a time when enterprise server sales were slowing – the container competition heated up as IBM, HP and Dell soon offered their own “data center in a box” offerings.

“We’re trying to create an ecosystem,” said Microsoft data center architect Christian Belady. “Think about a world where everyone is doing this. It’s truly about commoditization. We don’t have any problem with (vendors) knocking on our doors. Ultimately, what will drive acceptance is cost.”

Cost is also the driving factor in Digital Realty Trust’s push toward an “industrialization” of data center design and construction, featuring pre-assembled or modular components that can be quickly brought together at a construction site. Digital Realty has built more than 1 million square feet of Turn-Key Datacenter space and now operates more than 80 mission-critical buildings.

Who Sets the Standard?
The industry has a way to go before the vision of “one size fits many” modular data centers can come together, according to Digital Realty’s Michael Manos, who previously worked on the Microsoft team that planned the Chicago facility.

“There is no set industry standards when it comes to data center containers,” Manos wrote in a recent blog post. “This means that each vendor might have their own approach on what goes in, and what stays out of the container.

“Some look to the widely publicized Microsoft C-Blox specification as a potential basis for a standard,” Manos adds. “This is their internal container specification that many vendors have configurations for, but you need to keep in mind that’s based on Microsoft’s requirements and might not meet yours. Until the Green Grid, ASHRAE, or other such standards body starts looking to drive standards in this space, its probably something to be concerned about.”

IBM, meanwhile, is building data centers for clients based on four modular designs – including a container – that Big Blue announced in 2008. A growing number of vendors are offering containerized mechanical and electrical equipment, including the PowerHousefrom Active Power (ACPW) and modular chillers from MultiStack.

While the cost benefits of modularity and PACs are intriguing, not all the players in the data center business can bring the same bulk-purchasing power to bear as Microsoft or Digital Realty.

Microsoft is sharing its process because it believes the benefits can drive better efficiencies for the entire data center industry. “Every one of these vendors who sell to use can sell the designs to other customers,” said Costello. “We ‘d be ecstatic if they sold it to someone else.”

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large 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.

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  1. I believe there are are some fundamental challenges that have not helped container adoption, and these challenges have little to do with a common spec. Granted, standardization is nice, but when you have vendors who produce containers which are really big boxes in which to ship that vendors equipment... There are others - namely single tenant vs. multi tenant deployments. Single tenant acquisition and deployment is simpler. The customer has full control of the design and deployment and overall project plan. In a multi tenant site, that is far more difficult. The customer needs to purchase the container with ~4000 square feet of equivalent gear. They need to get a place to plug it in. Before the plugging in happens there is the zoning and permitting issues that are by no means simple. I think Digital Realty Trust will help with the place to plug them in, as will other vendors, however the notion of having to eat an elephant in two bites - by purchasing and standing up a container - is daunting for most. The other piece to this whole discussion is around time to market/deployment. Data center greenfield, retrofits, refurbs whatever you want to call them happen in months vs. weeks for a container. Colo providers have been reluctant to spend money on spec projects for containers so customers are caught in the middle: 'My rep says that I can get a container deployed in 8 weeks, and I looked at providers and they cant give me anything for 16-32 weeks' It is akin to buying a boat without having a slip for it. The other point I will make is that there are standards for the container today - ISO standards. There are standards for the components of the stuff that goes in the containers. Do customers really want to give up design flexibility to support a business need to save a couple of bucks and have an unsuccessful project? I think not. I personally believe that you take the time to design a standard BUILD - one for compute and one for storage - and work with the vendor to manufacture those vs trying to get vendors who love the idea of standardization - so long as it's theirs.

  2. Hi, I work for a company based in Ireland who specialize in Modular construction projects primarily for the residential market. We are looking at exploring the DC market, as we feel we have numerous offerings and advantages to 40ft containers. We can certify our units to be "stacked" to 24 storeys, and have fully air tight solutions. We can custom make our modules to facilitate various needs and designs, i.e wider aisles, containment with a factory finish. I have planned several large DC's to 50,000 sq. ft, and do feel given the chance, this solution will far outweigh the restrictions of 40ft solutions. Units can be insulated, built taller to facilitate 52u cabs, wider aisles so not cramped, better hot-aisle cold-aisle containment, and better security when needed.