Container-ised datacentres may reshape IT

Microsoft is at the forefront of a new trend

A major transformation in the way that large datacentres are built is under way, and the expected changes may have as much impact on IT productivity as the adoption of shipping containers in the late 1950s did on the freight industry.

At that time, the shift from putting cargo on individual pallets to packing goods into much larger containers enabled shippers to load and unload vessels much faster, with less labour. Now a similar transition is taking place in some datacentres, via the use of container-based systems and other modular technologies.

Advocates say that replacing conventional racks of servers with systems built into shipping containers that can be rolled right into buildings will make it easier to set up datacentres and add more processing power as needed. It also could pave the way for expanding the use of "compute clouds" to deliver online IT services — a development that might result in big changes within IT departments.

Microsoft is one of the trailblazers of the containerised IT movement. In Northlake, a suburb of Chicago, it is building a US$500 million (NZ$630 million) , 500,000-square-foot datacentre that will hold up to 220 shipping containers. Each will arrive preconfigured with racks containing as many as 2,000 servers, along with networking and power-distribution equipment to facilitate the set-up process.

Michael Manos, Microsoft's senior director of datacentre services, says the Lego-like approach being used at the new facility will help shake up a part of IT that's in need of some change. "Datacentres are typically very conservative," Manos says. "If you look at a datacentre built a year ago and one built 10 years ago, they look very similar."

Analyst firm Gartner says that building-block designs such as the one Microsoft is implementing will lead to the "industrialisation" of IT within mega-size datacentres. According to Gartner, such facilities will be able to provide the technical infrastructure needed to support compute clouds that can scale on demand as the use of internet-based application services grows. In fact, Microsoft plans to use the Northlake facility to help meet the processing demands that its Windows Live and Office Live online services are expected to generate.

Online services can also be much less expensive for companies. For instance, Gartner analyst David Smith estimates that it costs about US$10 per month to provide email services to an employee via internal systems. But doing so through an online cloud may cost only US$5 per month. "The economics are very compelling," Smith said at Gartner's Symposium/ITxpo 2008 event in Las Vegas earlier this month.

But by accelerating the adoption of utility-style computing, container-based systems could lead to a thinning of the IT worker ranks in corporate datacentres — just as the advent of shipping containers reduced the need for so many wharf workers in ports 50 years ago. Online services "lessen your need for internal IT", says Adam Cohen, a web architect for the municipal government of North Las Vegas.

Even the number of technicians needed to support modular systems may be less than what is required in conventional datacentres.

The Microsoft facility will sprawl across about 4.8ha of floor space and may have as many as 440,000 servers in the 220 containers that are being installed. And that's just on the first floor; an undisclosed number of additional systems will be installed on the second floor, which will have a traditional raised-floor layout.

But with just 35 full-time employees divided among the equivalent of four work shifts at the 24/7 facility, the average number of on-site staffers likely won't break double digits. "Working at a Microsoft datacentre can be a lonely experience," Manos says. Microsoft has similar workforces at some of its other datacentres, but Manos notes that those are much smaller than the Northlake facility will be, in terms of both systems and floor space.

The impact of massive datacentres like the one Microsoft is building, and the added online services that they may make possible, won't be felt quickly within IT departments. "People don't change their email systems overnight," Gartner's Smith says.

Jim Bingham, CIO at the University of Kansas Medical Centre, agrees that any such changes will take time within his organisation. But he does plan to consider external online services. "Not immediately, but definitely in the next three to five years," he says.

Vendors such as Sun Microsystems, Rackable Systems and Verari Systems are selling container-based systems. IBM and Hewlett-Packard have also developed modular datacentre technologies. But the appeal of cloud-based services may be limited in industries such as aerospace, defence and financial services, which all have to contend with numerous regulatory restrictions. And companies that have already installed integrated systems extensively may not see a great need to shift their server resources to outside providers.

John Enck, another Gartner analyst, says that containers — whether they're the 20-footers that Sun is marketing, or the 40-foot-long ones that Rackable and Verari are offering — may make sense only for companies building datacentres on the same scale as Microsoft. In other words, very few. "It's about as leading-edge as you can get — and it's not for the masses," Enck says.

Customised, special-purpose servers — such as the ones Dell began offering last year to customers that buy more than 1,000 systems per quarter — may be a less-extravagant alternative.

Dell tunes all the systems in advance to support the specific applications that will run on them. One of the early users is search engine vendor Ask.com, which says the custom-designed systems have reduced its hardware costs and the amount of power its servers consume.

That kind of approach could provide datacentre managers with some of the modularity and efficiencies that Microsoft is aiming for in its Northlake facility, but on a more modest scale.

And even if more companies do embrace cloud-based online services in the years ahead, some users think that new opportunities will continue to open up within datacentres.

After all, there is still a need for a significant number of wharf workers in ports and similarly, workers will still be needed to deal with online service providers, says Jason Dauwen, a software development manager at a company that makes software for financial services firms. "But it will probably be more business [analysts] than technical staff," says Dauwen, who asked that his employer not be identified.

DigitalChalk, a vendor of online training systems, relies on Google Apps for its internal email. Last year, it began using Amazon.com's Elastic Compute Cloud service to support customer applications. But no IT staffers lost their jobs as a result of that move, says Troy Trolle, DigitalChalk's chief technical officer. Instead, they began managing the company's applications on the Amazon EC2 servers.

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