Google, Microsoft spark interest in modular data centers

Experts question energy efficiency claims

But it's still too early to tell whether containerized data centers are the way of the future. "We're just at the cusp of broad adoption," Noer says.

Potential use cases for containers include disaster recovery, remote locations such as military bases, or big IT hosting companies that would prefer not to build brick-and-mortar data centers, Kumar says.

A TV crew that follows sporting events may want a mobile data center, says Robert Bunger, director of business development for American Power Conversion. APC doesn't sell its portable data center, but in 2004 it built one into a tractor-trailer as a proof-of-concept. It was resilient. "We pulled that trailer all over the country" for demos, Bunger notes.

But APC isn't seeing much demand, except in limited cases. For example, a business that needs an immediate capacity upgrade but is also planning to move its data center in a year might want a container because it would be easier to move than individual servers and storage boxes.

UC-San Diego bought two of Sun's Modular Data Centers. One goal is to contain the cost of storing and processing rapidly increasing amounts of data, says Tom DeFanti, principal investigator of the school's GreenLight energy efficiency research project. But it will take time to see whether the container approach is more efficient. "The whole idea is to create an experiment to see if we can get more work per watts," DeFanti says.

The Modular Data Center is not as convenient to maintain as a regular computer room, because there is so little space to maneuver inside, he says. But "It seems to me to be an extremely well-designed and thought-out system," DeFanti says. "It gives us a way of dealing with the exploding amount of scientific computing that we need to do."

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