The Credit Crunch, Containers and Capacity

Some hardware vendors that the credit crunch could provide a boost to the nascent market for data center containers.

The U.S. financial crisis has made it extremely difficult to get credit, which has many corporations taking steps to cut costs and preserve capital. Meanwhile, many companies are facing constraints on power, space and cooling capacity in their data centers.

That combination has convinced some hardware vendors that the credit crunch could provide a boost to the nascent market for data center containers. While Microsoft and Google have made headlines with their plans to use containers in roofless shells and offshore barges, HP and IBM see containers as a short-term capacity expansion tool for the enterprise.

“What we’re hearing from customers now is an increased focus on capex (capital expenditures)," said Steve Cumings, Director of Scalable Computing Infrastructure for HP, which launched its POD container in July. "Building a new data center is expensive. We suspect the majority of customers will buy a POD as an expansion of their data center."

Jody Cefola, Marketing Manager for IBM’s Site and Facilities Services, shared a similar outlook for IBM's Portable Modular Data Center (PMDC) container product. “We see two major uses: temporary data center capacity, and deploying compute capacity in remote locations,” said Cefola.

The Uptime Institute noted containers' ability to provide quick capacity in its review of the Sun MD container. "The Institute expects to find field installations where the wall of the existing computer room was opened and the entire Sun MD shipping container was swung into the existing building and the wall re-closed," Uptime wrote.

Cumings gave a presentation on the HP POD last Wednesday at the Gartner Data Center Conference in Las Vegas. He said containers offer the ability to expand in modular increments at an equivalent price point to adding a similar amount of computing capacity in a bricks-and-mortar data center.

The HP POD is priced at about $1.1 million to $1.2 million, including the infrastructure but not the IT gear. "We’ve done apples to apples comparisons with customers," says Cumings, who said the capital expense is equivalent, and the container has a lower operating cost due to the energy efficiency of the design.

One significant advantage offered by containers is the time required to bring new data center capacity online. “A container can give you additional high density space very quickly,” says HP's Cumings. "We can ship a POD out of our factory within six weeks of getting an order.” IBM says its PMDC units can be delivered in 12 to 14 weeks.

Those ship times provide a shorter decision cycle for cash-conscious companies, moving closer "just in time” deployment. That's a big change from the 18 to 36 month window typically required for a new data center.

Many in the data center industry remain skeptical about containers, both operationally and economically. They note that the cost projections don't include the expense of providing utilities and cooling.

“We don’t think a container is going to be a solution for all customers," said Cumings. "If your priority is security, you might be more comfortable in a brick and mortar environment."

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