Cisco jumps into portable data center market

Cisco hopes the containers will be a vehicle to sell more of its server, networking and other products

Cisco Systems launched its first containerized data center on Monday, coming late to the party but offering some unique management features that could help set it apart from other vendors.

Containerized data centers typically are standard 20- or 40-foot shipping containers packed with servers, switches and other IT equipment. Pioneered by companies such as Verari Systems and Sun Microsystems, they're used to quickly add extra capacity to an existing data center or to bring capacity to a remote location, such as an oil exploration site or a battlefield.

Cisco has opted for a 40-foot container that it says can be up and running in 90 to 120 days from when an order is placed. Like other vendors in the market, Cisco expects customers to stock the containers primarily with its own products, but the racks inside can accommodate other vendors' equipment as well, said Keith Siracuse, a manager and product marketing engineer at Cisco.

Because they are small, self-contained environments, containerized data centers can be made highly energy-efficient. Cisco has gone a step further than other vendors by designing racks that each have their own enclosure, so the temperature for each can be set individually.

That allows customers to operate individual racks at slightly warmer or cooler temperatures, depending on the equipment inside and the workload, which helps squeeze out more energy savings.

The container can house up to 16 racks, with a maximum power capacity of 25 kW per rack. The containers can be parked side by side or stacked two deep to save floor space.

"You're able to put a lot more equipment, and get much better power utilization, versus the floor space in a traditional data center," Siracuse said.

Cisco opted for a chilled water cooling system that is housed in the floor of the container, under the racks. That means equipment is less likely to get damaged in the event of a water leak, he said. Most other vendors run the chilled water above the servers. Leaks aren't a common occurrence, but it's a concern that data center operators sometimes cite when considering water-based cooling systems.

The container comes with a new management tool, Cisco Data Center Operations 360, which monitors the rack temperature and other variables in real time and generates historical reports for analysis.

Customers can set the desired temperature range for each rack, and the software adjusts the fan speeds and water flow accordingly. Operations 360 also has tools for capacity planning and to design the layout inside the container.

Containerized data centers can be located next to an existing facility, where they share the same backup generator and water supply. If they are used remotely, the infrastructure is housed in a separate container.

Cisco doesn't provide that infrastructure or the services to put it together. It has partnered with "master integrators," such as Johnson Controls, that will do that work for the customer.

Other vendors that already sell containerized data centers, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and i/o Data Centers, haven't disclosed shipment figures. It's not thought to be a big market -- IDC has estimated a few hundred units per year -- but the big IT vendors see enough potential that nearly all now have an offering.

"Over the past year we've really started to see this market gain traction," Siracuse said. There's a lot of interest from the health care market, oil and gas exploration companies, government agencies, and the education market, including academic research centers that are running out of data center capacity, he said.

Cisco's entry in the market steps up its rivalry with HP, IBM and Dell, which have already seen Cisco encroach on their server businesses with its Unified Computing System, which combines server hardware and network gear in a single package.

"We're trying to expand our data center applications, and we need this as part of the portfolio," Siracuse said. "This is our first product. We'll be looking at other solutions moving forward," he said.

Pricing will vary depending on how the product is configured and deployed, he said. In general, containerized data centers typically cost more than US$1 million, including the IT equipment inside.

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