Visualization of a warehouse filled with Vapor Chambers (Image: Vapor IO)

Visualization of a warehouse filled with Vapor Chambers (Image: Vapor IO)

This Startup Challenges the ‘Data Center Aisle’ Concept

If the words “data center” invoke any associations for you at all, they probably conjure up images of neatly arranged rows of black or gray server cabinets on a raised floor made of white perforated tiles. If you’re more intimately involved with IT facilities, you may be thinking of air handlers and water chillers, or UPS systems and switchgear in a room somewhere close to the data hall.

What you’re probably not imagining is a room filled with round black cylinders that resemble developing tanks for film but 9 feet in diameter. But that’s sort of what a data center imagined by founders of a new startup looks like.

Vapor IO, which came out of stealth Tuesday, has designed something it calls the Vapor Chamber, which the founders say is a lot cheaper to deploy and operate than a traditional hot aisle-cold aisle data center environment. More than anything, it is for so-called “edge data centers,” or data centers that are much smaller than the hyperscale facilities the likes of Google and Facebook have been building in rural towns in and outside of the U.S. Edge data centers are in or close to major population centers, storing data and content that needs to be delivered to users who live there.

Cole Crawford, Vapor CEO and one of the company’s founders, said the Vapor Chamber was for the “Internet-of-Things cloud,” which is about delivering data at the edge. “That cloud is powered and looks very different than the general-purpose cloud, and economics for that are very different as well,” he said.

That Crawford knows his data centers and his cloud would be an understatement. He was one of the people involved in creation of Nova, the cloud architecture designed for NASA’s internal use in the second half of the last decade that was later rolled into a collaboration with Rackspace to create OpenStack – the family of open source technologies that enjoys widespread popularity today.

He’s also been involved with the Open Compute Project, Facebook’s open source data center and hardware design initiative, since the project’s start in 2011. And for the last 1.5 years he’s been executive director of the Open Compute Foundation, the non-profit that oversees OCP. Open Compute is having its annual summit in San Jose, California, this week.

The Edge is Dense

The reason Vapor Chamber looks the way it does is that it’s designed to be deployed in places where physical space is in short supply. It’s designed to provide a lot of compute capacity within a relatively small footprint. A single chamber – 9 feet in diameter – can accommodate up to 150 kW across six 42RU racks.

The “edge cloud,” Crawford said, will not run in data centers that are 100 megawatts and up (the ones Facebooks and Googles of the world run in). The network edge is in urban areas, and “we’re not building 100-plus-megawatt data centers in downtown New York or downtown San Francisco or downtown Chicago.”

Vapor Chamber reduces the amount of space needed for cooling traditional data centers. The six racks are wedge-shaped, forming a cylinder when put together. Inside the cylinder is what Crawford called the “hot column,” which servers push hot air into. The column replaces what would be a hot aisle in a traditional data center. A 36-inch variable-speed fan at the top sucks the hot air out of the column. Air pressure in the column is lower than pressure outside of the chamber. The difference in pressure is the mechanism that pulls cold air inside.

Vapor Chamber from all angles (Image: Vapor IO)

Vapor Chamber from all angles (Image: Vapor IO)

The chamber also includes things like rectifiers, PDUs, backup batteries, fire detection and suppression – in other words, all the things that are usually decoupled from the IT racks and take up extra space in the building – all within the slightly under 81 square feet it occupies. Not only can the edge data center be smaller in size, it can be a much less sophisticated (read “cheaper”) environment than your typical mission-critical facility.

The racks are inspired by Open Compute racks, or racks Facebook designed for its own use and contributed to its open source project. The chamber supports any IT gear, however, as long as it satisfies a few basic OCP requirements. “It will support any standard IT equipment,” Crawford said. “You have to be able to get power at the rear, and you have to be able to service it and hook up your networking gear at the front.”

Open Source DCIM

Adding more bang to its coming-out party, Vapor IO also announced its own data center infrastructure management and analytics system that includes hardware sensors and software. The company said it was contributing a foundational element of the system to the Open Compute Project. That element is called Open DCRE (Data Center Runtime Environment), which is a combination of sensors, firmware, and a controller board. It is a way to gather not only temperature and humidity data, but also pressure and vibration metrics, both of which matter a lot in operation of the Vapor Chamber.

The technology that is not open source is CORE, or Core Operating Runtime Environment. It provides a layer of analytics-driven intelligence on top of Open DCRE. Taking things beyond energy efficiency, it enables users to define units of production for their IT equipment – be they URL pages or transactions – and determine how efficiently their data center assets produce those units. The approach takes a line of thinking that is similar to the one eBay took with its Digital Service Efficiency dashboard, announced in March 2013. While eBay’s dashboard is specific to the online auction company, however, Vapor’s CORE is aimed at a wide range of users.

First Customer on Board

Vapor IO did not share pricing details but disclosed the name of its first customer. Union Station Technology Center in South Bend, Indiana, will use Vapor Chamber to build a cloud setup. Crawford said there were more customers in the pipeline, but the company wasn’t ready to disclose who they were. He also declined to share how the startup is being funded.

Crawford’s co-founders are Steven White, a former colleague from Nebula, an OpenStack-based private cloud vendor, and Nick Velander, founder of Signal Search Group, which helps local companies get their electronics products manufactured in China.

Vapor’s exclusive manufacturer is Jabil, a manufacturing services company based in Florida. Also among its partners are Romonet, a London company that makes analytics software for data center management, and Mesosphere, the San Francisco-based startup that has developed an operating system for the entire data center that’s based on the open source Apache Mesos project.

A Fresh Look at a Real Need

Given space constraints in urban centers of the major metros and demand for edge data center capacity, Vapor IO is trying to address a real need in the market with a very unorthodox solution. While the design is unusual, the company’s founders have taken into consideration the fact that the data center industry is a very conservative one. The wedge racks can be installed in a traditional data center, for example. But traditional data center is not the main target. The target is a new kind of data center, one where building and supporting infrastructure needs are minimal, and location takes precedence over everything else.

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About the Author

San Francisco-based business and technology journalist. Editor in chief at Data Center Knowledge, covering the global data center industry.

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