HP Announces a Data-Center-in-a-Box Offering of Its Own

HP's POD is innovative and visionary, analysts say. In a world chock full of both innovation and vision, that's saying something.

Sun Microsystems Inc. once cornered the market on container-based virtualization. Solaris Containers were, after all, a focal point of Sun's virtualization marketing several years ago. With HP's announcement last week, Sun now has more competition.

There's more than one way to virtualize a container, after all. Sun demonstrated as much nearly two years ago when it unveiled a physical virtual container christened Project Blackbox. The data-center-in-a-container had everything needed to build an enterprise data center (servers, storage, networking interconnects, integrated power and cooling) in a single, standard-sized shipping container (see http://www.esj.com/news/article.aspx?EditorialsID=2229).

Project Blackbox was a visionary initiative on Sun's part. For about 18 months, Sun has had the data-center-in-a-box segment mostly all to itself. Both IBM Corp. and a best-of-breed player, Rackable Systems, now market data-center-in-a-box visions.

Last week, another vendor which knows a thing or two about enterprise computing and highly-scalable, highly-available compute infrastructures announced a virtual container strategy of its own.

Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) unveiled its spin on the (suddenly ubiquitous) data-center-in-a-shipping-container: the HP Performance Optimized Datacenter, or HP POD. HP's pitch with POD doesn't differ much from Sun's initial Project Blackbox pitch: Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz once billed Blackbox as an "instant-on" modular data center, touting it as a solution for the data center power, cooling, and real-estate costs that frustrate many organizations.

Aside from its power and cooling features, Sun's vision also promised flexibility: unmatched, flexibility, according to Schwartz and other Sun officials, who claimed that customers could deploy one or more Blackbox containers to quickly add data center capacity -- or to forklift in an entirely new data center -- should the need arise.

HP's takes a similar line with POD. "Customers have more flexibility to balance their capital expenditures and operating expenses while quickly and seamlessly meeting their needs for additional capacity with HP PODs," said Christine Martino, vice president and general manager of HP's Scalable Computing and Infrastructure Organization, in a prepared release. "HP's innovative POD approach allows customers to deploy world-class, scalable, highly power-efficient data center resources quickly and ships in just six weeks."

There's also a pricing angle. Sun claimed that Blackbox units would drop in at about one-hundredth the initial cost of the average data center. HP's pitch is slightly different. For one thing, HP officials claim, POD delivers both greater density and better scalability than competitive offerings from Sun, IBM, or Rackable. The company says a single POD unit -- which (unlike its 20-foot Blackbox counterpart) takes the form of a 40-foot shipping container -- can pack up to 3,500 compute nodes, along with 12,000 large-form-factor hard drives.

HP officials say customers can condense the equivalent of a 4,000 square-foot data center into a shipping container-sized form factor. What's more, they point out, POD deliverables will ship (in most cases) within six weeks of a customer's order.

What should IT think of HP's move, or -- for that matter -- the quasi-ubiquity of data-center-in-a-box solutions?

"Container-based computing is one of those computing solutions whose benefits are almost entirely technological. It offers a great way to squeeze a great deal of processing power into a greatly reduced footprint," says Charles King, a principal with consultancy Pund-IT. "Radically controlling the space requires vendors and customers to embrace sometimes radical … technologies [such as water cooling] with significant short- and long-term benefits."

If the lagging adoption of data-centers-in-a-box begs a key question: if they're so great -- or if they're such great ideas, at any rate -- why aren't more customers taking the plunge?

King concedes, "As with most things related to business, habits are hard to break. Organizations used to building, managing, and maintaining monolithic data-center facilities tend to stick with what they know, and stubborn executives tend to like best what confuses them least," he comments. "That said, container-based IT solutions have been finding their way into corners of the market where the combination of quick deployment, easy installation, and robust performance trumps conventional thinking."

Industry veteran Gordon Haff, a senior IT advisor with consultancy Illuminata, also has questions about the data-center-in-a-box market. For one thing, he points out, Sun's level of commitment to Blackbox is far from obvious.

"[I]t's always been a bit unclear to what degree Sun viewed its 'Project Blackbox' initiative as a serious business opportunity, as opposed to just a visionary idea or an opportunity to argue that Sun uniquely gets the future of computing. A variety of other vendors have adopted a similar concept. Some of them are likewise treating it as much as a showcase as a practical solution," Haff wrote in an Illuminata blog post.

"[S]uch an attitude isn't universal -- especially among those vendors who are in the business of designing datacenters as well as selling servers and other gear," he continues, citing the Portable Modular Data Center (PMDC) offering that Big Blue introduced just last month.

HP, like IBM, is one of those vendors that (as Haff put it) is "in the business of designing data centers." Not surprisingly, he argues, in POD it has a compelling -- and compellingly divergent -- data-center-in-a-box solution.

"Most of the other such products on the market introduce various clever schemes to cram lots of computer, storage, networking, power, and cooling gear into the tight confines of a shipping container without compromising the ability to service and reconfigure that equipment. Not easy, and definitely not in keeping with the way access is handled in a regular bricks and mortar datacenter," Haff explains.

"HP takes a different approach. It uses 19[-inch]-wide, full-depth racks in a 50U height. In other words, standard width, standard depth, and just a bit higher than the 42U racks that are standard in most datacenters. This should make it straightforward to install most standard IT gear -- whether from HP or someone else."

There's a catch, of course: in order to access these racks from the rear, customers must first remove the side panels of their POD containers. That makes for another path for cool air to escape (or, conversely, for hot air to invade), assuming that a POD's access panels aren't properly locked down.

Quick Expansion

Sun pushed Project Blackbox as a good fit for greenfield environments (i.e., those without significant data center investments) or for very-dense data center requirements -- such as the prototypical Web 2.0 data centers of the (then) future.

HP is taking a different tack with its POD push, highlighting the product's scalability, density, and modularity (which make it ideal for either scenario), but primarily pushing POD's bona fides for quick-and-easy data center expansion projects. Haff thinks the computing giant might be on to something.

"[T]hat's the reason HP's likely to be as successful with this type of product as anyone -- if not more than most. It has the datacenter design expertise, sure. EYP Mission Critical Facilities, which HP bought in 2007, brought with it truly premiere capabilities in this regard. However, it's the IT gear within the container, how it's delivered, how it's serviced, and how it's upgraded that matter most to potential customers," he comments. "Those are all things HP does well."

Pund-IT's King, too, likes what he sees in HP's POD initiative.

"HP appears to have the products, partners, manufacturing infrastructure and datacenter experience to make containerized computing a reality," he comments, citing -- like Haff -- HP's acquisitions of EYP Mission Critical and the former Electronic Data Systems (EDS). "[T]he acquisition of EDS could complement HP's effort. From the looks of things, EDS' Datacenter Modernization Service should fit right into the POD," King points out.

Thanks to HP's entry in this emerging market, King suggests, that segment is looking a lot more viable. "With four notable vendors addressing this market, we would not be surprised if enterprise customers increasingly look to containerized solutions for addressing significant datacenter and business problems," he concludes.