Whose Containers Will Microsoft Use?

So whose container-based data centers will Microsoft be using? Probably Rackable. And it's already using a Verari container.

Rich Miller

April 3, 2008

3 Min Read
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So whose container-based data centers will Microsoft be using in its huge new Chicago data center? Microsoft said Tuesday that it will populate one floor of its $500 million facility with as many as 220 shipping containers filled with servers. The second floor of the immense facility will be a traditional raised-floor data center. Microsoft director of data center services Michael Manos said the company's new data center in Dublin, Ireland will also be built with this hybrid design.

Manos said Microsoft designed the specifications for the containerized data centers, but will not be building them. That's good news for at least one of the companies marketing "data center in a box" products, a group that includes Rackable Systems (RACK), Verari Systems and Sun Microsystems (JAVA).

We've previously noted that Microsoft's interest in containers could be a boon for Rackable. Microsoft is a major customer for Rackable, but neither company would confirm this week whether Microsoft owns any of Rackable's ICE Cube containers. Nobody's denying it, either.

One thing is certain: if Rackable is supplying Microsoft with containers, it's not alone. Microsoft has deployed at least one of Verari's FOREST containers at its data center in Boulder, Colorado.

It looks like Sun, which generated considerable publicity for the container concept with its Project Blackbox, won't be joining the party. Microsoft says it plans to use 40-foot containers in Chicago, and Sun's Blackbox offering (now known as the Sun MD S20) is housed in a 20-foot shipping container.

Rackable and Verari each offer containers in either 20-foot or 40-foot form factors.

Verari has designed its 20-foot container, known as V1, for customers seeking rapid expansion of their data center space, according to Chief Technology Officer Dave Driggers. The V1 is engineered for 200,000 watts of power, and includes self-contained cooling, meaning that it needs only power and connectivity. The 40-foot V2 has a power capacity of 500,000 watts, and is optimized for "mass deployment," Driggers said. The V2 requires an external chiller.

Rackable's 40-foot container product was launched as Concentro, but was soon rebranded as ICE Cube (short for Integrated Concerto Environment) and expanded to include a 20-foot offering. ICE Cube uses DC power technology and Rackable Systems' low wattage servers and storage, as well as self-contained cooling technology. The 40-foot ICE Cube can support power densities of up to 1,500 watts per square foot, according to Conor Malone, Director of Data Center Solutions for Rackable.

Rackable said in February that it expects to deploy at least 20 ICE Cubes in 2008, and perhaps as many as 50. "There is no doubt that from what we are seeing right now, '08 will be a breakthrough year in containerized data centers," said Rackable CEO Mark Barrenechea.

Even 50 ICE Cubes wouldn't be enough to meet Microsoft's goal of between 150 and 220 containerized computing units in its Chicago data center. Manos said Microsoft will use several different configurations for its containers. "We've architected so we have a range of power in each container," said Manos, who said Microsoft will begin installing containers in Chicago this year, deploying them before the raised-floor space on the second floor is completed.

That rapid deployment allows Microsoft to take advantage of containers' speed-to-market advantage. That timetable may also be the reason Microsoft appears to be working with more than one vendor.

There may be new players in the container game as well. Microsoft's James Hamilton, whose presentations gave the first hints at Microsoft's interest in containers, said more container options are in the pipeline. "It's great to see all the major systems providers investing modular data centers, Hamilton wrote. "I expect the pace of innovation to pick up and over the last two weeks I've seen three new designs. Things are moving."

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