Microsoft Sees More Pros Than Cons in Containers

This version of this article originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

Microsoft Corp. continued its show of enthusiasm for container-based systems last week, with one of its data center officials saying that the modular and portable IT setups have a key role to play in meeting the demand for online services.

But the container-based approach has some potential drawbacks, acknowledged Daniel Costello, Microsoft's director of data center research. For instance, IT vendors are still filling shipping containers with equipment that was designed for traditional data centers. "Moving forward, we need to design systems specifically for this form factor," Costello said.

Other cons include higher costs from server failures if the power to a container is cut off, Costello said during a speech at the Structure 08 conference in San Francisco.

There are also questions about whether containers can be refurbished after their typical 10-year life span, or if they need to be discarded. In addition, the containers now available may not be able to handle servers from multiple vendors because of size differences, Costello said.

Robert Moya, a technical facilities manager at one of Stanford University's data centers, also pointed to the inability to install servers from different vendors as a drawback. And he noted that the narrow space between the racks in containers can make it hard for IT staffers to work side by side.

Nonetheless, Microsoft is convinced that containers will be widely deployed. "We used to talk about a PC on every desk," Costello said. "But how about a data center in every town?"

Microsoft has said it plans to put up to 220 containers, each holding as many as 2,000 servers, on the first floor of a new data center near Chicago. And the company's Virtual Earth online service is already being controlled from a portable data center located in Colorado.

Vendors such as Sun Microsystems Inc. and Rackable Systems Inc. are selling container-based systems now, and IBM said in June that it would start doing so as well.

Buying 2,000 servers preconfigured in a container is more cost-effective than manually installing separate racks of systems, Costello said. He added that Microsoft sees containers as a "primary packaging unit" for systems, not just a way to add extra computing capacity on short notice.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon