Building-block data centers may reshape IT

Container-based systems and other modular data center technologies might help drive a shift to online 'compute clouds.' But that could leave the futures of some IT workers in a fog

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

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 exponentially faster, with less labor. Now a similar transition is taking place in some data centers, 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 data centers 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 corporate IT departments.

Microsoft is one of the trailblazers of the containerized IT movement. In a suburb of Chicago, the software vendor is building a US$500 million, 500,000-square-foot data center 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 setup process.

Michael Manos, Microsoft's senior director of data center services, said 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. "Data centers are typically very conservative," Manos said. "If you look at a data center built a year ago and one built 10 years ago, they look very similar."

Consulting firm Gartner says that building-block designs such as the one Microsoft is implementing will lead to the "industrialization" of IT within megasize data centers. 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 e-mail 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 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 data centers -- just as the advent of shipping containers reduced the need for longshoremen in ports 50 years ago. Online services "lessen your need for internal IT," said 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 data centers.

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