Containerized datacentre

Containerised datacentre – think inside the box

Containerised datacentre – it’s available at all good datacentre trade shows and certainly made a splash pre-2010, but have you actually seen one in the wild?

A modular containerised datacentre is typically a portable, self-contained, way to deploy compute capacity. The usual form factor is that of a standard 20-, 40- or 53-foot shipping container. Within the container is housed everything you need for a DC. So the basic idea is that you can scale out your “datacentre” a container at a time and you can do so pretty much anywhere. Well, I hear you say, that sounds ideal. Or is it? There are a number of notable companies that have dipped their toes in the water.

Who is using containerised datacentres?

Google’s first all-containerised datacentre went live back in 2005. It housed 45k servers in 45 containers. Overall it supported 10MW of power. They have since reverted back to a more traditional DC design. That having been said, maybe they were practising for the mysterious Google Navy containers.

containerized datacentre

Microsoft have tried different configurations of containerized datacentre, from standard shipping containers stacked two high to bespoke containers it like to call ITPAC. Two years ago Microsoft changed its hardware approach to standardising on only a few server designs. Kushagra Vaid, general manager for hardware infrastructure at Microsoft said, “Microsoft has had to expand datacenter capacity around the world at a pace that couldn’t be achieved with containers”. To meet this demand Microsoft realised that painting themselves into a container corner would not help them innovate. Instead they joined the Open Compute Project and standardised on non-containerised specs. This means that the hardware can be used in both its own datacentres and the facilities it leases from commercial providers.

Amazon used datacentre containers back in 2011. We know this because AWS engineer James Hamilton showed us a couple of pictures at a conference. They had two containers stacked. If you ask Amazon CTO Werner Vogels what the deal is today he would probably say… nothing. First rule of Amazon club is: you do not talk about Amazon club.

Hmm, I hear you say

So, on a larger scale for true hyperscalers, containers are not looking like the answer to fast deployment. IBM have installed more than 500 modular datacentres around the globe. The Portable Modular Data Centre (PMDC) was launched way back in December 2009. So clearly there is a demand, but one with only a few players. Microsoft’s Dublin Data Center saw a power usage effectiveness (PUE) of 1.25. This is higher than what Facebook’s open compute Oregon datacentre now achieves.

Next time we will look at the actual benefits and potential downfalls of deploying containers.


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