Analysis: A Closer Look at Sun’s Project Blackbox

Is Sun’s Blackbox a gimmick? Some analysts think there’s a lot more to it, but we’ll have to wait until it ships to be sure.

Sun Microsystems Inc. last month unveiled its own shipping container-centric data-center initiative: Project Blackbox. Sun positions Project Blackbox as a data center in a giant black box—in this case, an industry-standard shipping container.

Think it’s a gimmick? Many analysts think there’s a lot more going on than first meets the eye.

Sun officials bill Project Blackbox as an “instant-on” modular data center, comprising all-in-one compute, storage, and network resources, along with high-efficiency power and cooling features, too. The idea, Sun says, is that Project Blackbox—when it becomes available—can be drop-shipped to any locale in the world, providing canned data-center capabilities.

There’s a strong economic case to be made for Project Blackbox, according to Sun. The company’s chief, Jonathan Schwartz, cites the rising cost of data-center real estate, along with the increasingly prohibitive cost of powering and cooling mammoth data centers.

“Just about every CIO and startup I meet says they're crippled by data-center energy and space constraints. Today's solutions are clearly failing to meet the needs of Web 2.0," said Sun president and CEO Jonathan Schwartz, in a statement. “Rather than trying to improve upon today's data center, designed for people babysitting computers, Project Blackbox starts from the world's most broadly adopted industry standard, the shipping container.”

If this sounds like a gimmick, take a closer look. Jonathan Eunice, founder and principal IT advisor at consultancy Illuminata, notes that “If nothing else, Blackbox would still have the distinction of being the first ‘in-a-box’ product to actually come in an actual box,” he deadpans. “Sun describes [Blackbox] in a lot of ways, including ‘world’s first virtualized data center.’ That seems either an over-enthusiastic inventory of Blackbox’s contents or an overly pessimistic assessment of leading data centers, many of which are already highly virtualized. But what Blackbox does truly introduce is a new kind of module for data center construction.”

Each Blackbox module (Sun defines a modular Blackbox “unit” as a single shipping container) can be densely packed with Sun hardware, able to accommodate up to 250 Sun Fire servers, two petabytes of storage, and seven terabytes of memory. That’s a considerable collection of resources. Given the strides Sun has made (and continues to make) on the virtualization front, there’s a strong case to be made that Blackbox will boast best-in-class virtualization capabilities, too.

In a sense, Eunice argues, Blackbox is a sign of the times. After all, data centers are increasingly complex propositions, with esoteric cabling, cooling, and connectivity requirements. If IBM Corp. can successfully pitch the mainframe as—in effect—a highly integrated data-center-in-a-box product, shouldn’t Sun be able to find a few takers for Blackbox? Eunice thinks so.

“[A]rranging and connecting increasingly large collections of bundled racks is now [a] headache,” he writes, pointing to the rack-based server farms in modern data centers. “Blackbox is Sun’s answer: Multiple racks, installed, cabled, and connected, along with a design for how they will be used, and taps for the appropriate, externally-supplied power, cooling, and network cables. Oh, and let’s not forget: Wrapped in a lovely 20-foot standardized shipping container.”

Packing in the Power

More to the point, a single Blackbox unit packs a lot of computational horsepower: as many as 500 Opteron processors, for example. Sun says a topped-off Blackbox could support between 20,000 and 30,000 thin-client users, Eunice points out. That kind of performance seems tailor-made for a long laundry list of potential scenarios.

“The thought is that Blackbox is the ultimate “green field” deployment vehicle. No prior data center is needed. Just install, hook up to power, cooling, and networks, and turn it on,” he observes. “[A] Blackbox container could be stored in a warehouse and then quickly transported to the site of a disaster where it could act as ready-built compute infrastructure. Military organizations, also, might have a clear need for readily shippable, rapidly deployable data centers to support remote operations. Sun claims that Blackboxes can be housed out-of-doors even.”

Eunice isn’t completely sanguine about Blackbox’s prospects. He stresses, for example, that Sun’s data-center-in-a-box vision is still very much that—a vision: the Blackbox which the Unix giant feted last month was a mere proof-of-concept, and final delivery of Project Blackbox hasn’t even been firmly fixed. “There is no price—not even a ‘ballpark figure’—currently attached, nor a firm delivery date,” he says, noting that Sun did throw out “2007” as an extremely vague deadline. “The announcement is about securing early mindshare and ‘thought leadership’ for this new kind of module. That said, it’s well done.” Veteran industry watcher Charles King, a principal analyst with consultancy Pund-IT, has a similar take on Sun’s Blackbox gambit. “At one level, the ‘mobiledata center’ concept sounds a bit goofy. Sure, they can build it, but does the company’s list of potential commercial opportunities for Project Blackbox hold water?” King wonders.

At the same time, he acknowledges, there’s a kind of laudable audacity to Sun’s vision. “Project Blackbox demonstrates Sun’s ability to both leverage and depart from its data-center-centric traditions. While the new solution leans heavily on stalwart Sun technologies [such as Solaris], it could not have been cost-effectively developed without the company’s imaginative use of industry-standard hardware. In fact, Project Blackbox represents the company’s most innovative x86 effort to date.”

The burning question, King suggests, is just what kinds of customers will be willing to give Blackbox a home. Sun has touted a range of use cases—including advanced military operations, oil and gas exploration, and disaster recovery—but King says many prospective customers will likely wait until Blackbox is field-tested before taking the plunge.

“While some of these organizations may find Project Blackbox intriguing, most are likely to consider its design and approach too untested … to take seriously. Over time, if Project Blackbox survives, such concerns may be assuaged. Until then, Sun will have to bet on gaining and keeping the interest of the small number of organizations perched on IT’s leading edge,” he concludes.

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