Sun Unveils Portable Data Center

Server and software maker Sun Microsystems Inc. has a novel twist on the data center: a portable version of the hulking outposts that house nothing but computers and equipment needed to store and process raw data.

The concept project dubbed Project Blackbox is a "data center in a box" with all the necessary servers, storage and networking equipment packed into a cushioned and cooled 20-foot-long cargo shipping container. Sun was unveiling the system Tuesday.

Only two prototypes have been produced so far, but the company hopes to begin full-scale production by next summer. The price hasn't been determined.

The idea eliminates several major hurdles facing data center customers: finding an appropriate site, arranging the servers and cooling mechanisms in the most efficient manner, and waiting for construction to be complete.

The company is touting energy efficiency as a crucial benefit of the confined space, as its patented cooling features can more accurately target hot spots than in giant warehouses. The box can hold hundreds of servers and save thousands of dollars per year in energy costs, the company said.

"This is a totally different solution to what to date has been an intractable problem," Sun Chief Executive Jonathan Schwartz said in an interview. "There's a little bit of packaging bravado that goes into this, but it proves it's not just about commodity computing."

Sun envisions key customers will include rapidly expanding Internet companies that can't wait several years to build traditional brick-and-mortar data centers, and military and humanitarian concerns that need immediate computing capability in remote regions. Small to mid-size companies that only need to expand incrementally could also be lucrative targets.

The development team sought to narrow the "mismatch" between the time it takes to build a custom technical room and the time it takes to buy the computer components, said David Douglas, Sun's vice president of advanced technology and the lead architect of the Blackbox project.

"Take a company like YouTube," Douglas said of the 2-year-old, rapidly growing video-sharing site, which Google Inc. agreed to buy last week for $1.65 billion. "It would take longer to build a new data center than the company's even existed. This lets you grow gracefully instead of making very, very large bets on how much data storage and computing you'll need down the road."

Analysts briefed on the project said it has enormous marketing potential and marks another creative research-and-development milestone critical to the company's slow but steady turnaround after its gutting in the dot-com collapse.

The company's annual revenue has declined in four of the past five years, and it has amassed net losses of more than $5 billion since 2002.

However, revenues have been climbing, and analysts are expecting double-digit year-over-year revenue growth when Sun reports first-quarter results on Oct. 26. The company has forecast it will turn a profit within the fiscal year.

"The rumors of Sun's demise are greatly exaggerated," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with research firm Insight 64. "This is the sort of thing that might make somebody who thought, 'Sun? I thought they were dead?', say, 'We need to talk to those guys again.'"


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