Will data center containers ever be popular in the enterprise? That's been a topic of debate since Sun Microsystems introduced its Blackbox container in 2006. Four years later, there are signs of growing traction for these factory-built facilities, now usually referred to as modular data centers. That shift was reflected in comments last week from a Gartner analyst at the company's annual Data Center Conference.
"You'll be hearing a lot about modular designs from vendors, and from Gartner," said analyst David Cappuccio, who said the modular design approach "just makes sense."
Gartner's focus on modular data centers is significant, given the research firm's wide following in enterprise IT. Cappuccio said the modular approach appealed to enterprise customers' focus on timely deployment and incremental expansion, which allows companies to deploy capital gradually. Several data center executives noted that advice from Gartner frequently comes up in discussions with enterprise customers.
Strides for Modular Designs
Cappuccio's comments come at the close of a year in which modular designs have made significant strides. Running servers in shipping containers has been viewed as a niche play by many in the data center industry, limited to mobile requirements, temporary capacity, or novel designs like the cloud computing facilities being built by Microsoft and Google.
But new designs from HP, Dell and new players like BladeRoom and NxGen have gone "beyond the box" with designs that look more like traditional data centers than shipping containers. The change in vocabulary, from "containers" to " modular" may also be easing any stigma attached to early container concepts.
While noting the many benefits of modular solutions, Cappuccio also reviewed the reasons that enterprise customers have been wary of these new form factors. The initial products, which housed servers in ISO containers, functioned best as "lights out" facilities that were not particularly hospitable to staff. Also, regular maintenance meant opening and closing the containers, which disrupted the airflow and environment.
Lack of Reference Accounts an Issue
Another major problem has been the lack of reference accounts. "After four or five years of this, the question was whether anyone buys these," said Cappuccio. "The poster child of customers was Microsoft, and vendors have been through about seven different designs trying to meet Microsoft's needs." The lack of publicly-identified customers is tied to the early adoption by two sets of secretive buyers: military and government users, and major cloud builders.
Cappuccio said enterprise customers may like the approach model offered by i/o Data Centers, whose i/o Anywhere product effectively brings a managed colocation center to the customer premise. "If you like colocation but you want to be close to your toys, you can do it," he said.