HP cuts containerized data center down to size

Hewlett-Packard has released a smaller version of its portable data center, this time based on a standard 20-foot shipping container, half the size of its first model.

HP hopes the lower entry price of the smaller system will help it to attract more customers. It will also be easier to ship, since roads in some parts of the world can't handle the 100,000-pound weight of a fully loaded 40-foot container, said Jean Brandau, an HP product manager.

HP calls its product the Performance Optimized Datacenter, or POD. It released the first one in mid-2008, following other vendors including Sun Microsystems, now part of Oracle. Other vendors also sell them, including IBM and Rackable Systems, and Dell has built a few on a custom basis.

Containerized data centers provide a way for companies to add more storage and compute power quickly, without needing to invest in a new data center or expand an existing facility. HP's 20-foot POD can house 10 racks of compute gear, compared with 22 for the 40-foot model.

Other companies, including Microsoft, have been using them as a standard building block in data centers, because they allow them to add new capacity quickly, and because their enclosed design makes them highly energy efficient.

"This is clearly not a high-volume product, but for certain use cases it is a good fit," said IDC analyst Jean Bozman. Other possibilities include using a container for a disaster recovery site separate from a company's main data center, or for use in the field by the military or oil and gas companies, she said.

The 20-foot box has a list price of US$600,000 without the IT equipment inside, half the price of the 40-foot container. Fully loaded, the containers can easily run to several million dollars.

They can also accommodate a lot of very dense compute gear. HP says its 20-foot container provides an average of 29 kilowatts per rack, and a maximum of 34 kilowatts. That compares to around 12 kilowatts per rack in a state-of-the-art data center, Brandau said.

Part of the reason is the efficient cooling system. Each rack is served by four variable-speed fans in the ceiling of the container, and the speed is adjusted for each rack depending on the temperature, measured by sensors on each rack.

"One of the main issues we thought about is blade adoption, because of the very high power and cooling densities required for those systems," Brandau said.

HP says it can deliver a container loaded with equipment in six weeks for U.S. customers, or within 12 weeks elsewhere in the world.

The PODs have a PUE ratio of 1.25, compared with 2.1 for the average data center, Brandau said. PUE, or power unit efficiency, is a ratio that measures the total power supplied to a facility to the amount of power actually serving the IT equipment. Most of the remainder is lost to inefficient power supplies and cooling.

Containerized data centers are more efficient because the hot and cold aisles are kept entirely separate, unlike many data centers where hot and cold air mix above the racks. HP's also has a highly efficient power distribution system, with power converted only once before it reaches the racks.

HP's PODs use standard racks throughout, and it will configure its containers with a mix of HP and non-HP gear. The racks are deep enough to accommodate HP's deepest server, which is 37 inches, Brandau said.

When it designed the 40-foot container, HP had large Internet companies in mind, such as Google and Microsoft, but many customers don't need that much capacity.

"Some customers are never going to need 22 racks of high-density equipment," Brandau said.

To make the containers easier to deliver, HP put a metal shell over the controls on the outside of the 20-foot model, while on the 40-foot model they are exposed.

None of the vendors selling containerized data centers are prepared to discuss how many they have sold. In a survey of data center operators last year conducted by Afcom, 11 percent of respondents said they expected to use a containerized data center in the next five years.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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