The Phenomenon that is Hoboken’s Not-Quite-St. Patrick’s Day

Last week, NBC 4 had a feature on the phenomenon that is Hoboken’s not-quite-St.-Patrick’s-Day Celebration, which is held the first Saturday of every March, a couple of weeks before the bigger celebration across the river in Manhattan.

This is the busiest day of the year in Hoboken, and, this year, attracted over 30,000 additional people to our already-crowded city.

See the video here: http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid717209071?bctid=1457712443

[Still not sure when the hell WordPress is going to allow embedding of Brightcove videos…geez.]

Going inside Sun’s Microsystems’ Project BlackBox: Now shipping to a location near you

Sun likes my company.

Over the past year, they have taken an increased interested in the technology behind our global payment and fraud prevention solutions, given the way that we have continuously stretched their mid-tiered enterprise servers and storage components to deliver sub-second financial processing to retailers. Last year, we were invited to a NASDAY Market Site morning breakfast with their Chairman, Scott McNeally, where he took some time to talk about their “Black Box” project, which, in a nutshell, is their attempt to build a practical data center environment in a standard, metal shipping container. Officially called the “Sun Modular Data Center” – the current model is the S20 and, according to Sun’s Marketing team, it looks something like this:

k3_project_blackbox_1.jpg

Yep, it’s the same type of container that you see on top of 18-wheelers, trains and cargo ships.

The idea of this fascinated me, both from an engineering and deployment standpoint. How much of a real data center could you actually fit in this thing? How practical was the application? How much does it cost?

Fast forward a bit to Sun’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, where we were invited last week to meet with Sun’s senior managers, as well as their CEO, Jonathan Schwartz. And wouldn’t you know it? Outside of the campus, just sitting there in the parking lot, was one of these Black Boxes.

Errr, well, actually, it was white:

whitebox.jpg

The concept here is excellent, but the execution is absolutely superb. Inside, you’ll find a fully-functional, self-contained data center, ready to be picked up and dropped in a location of your choice. There are eight full-size, fully-wired racks along with cooling and power management systems. All you need to add is electricity, a bit of water and you’re good to go (Some type of network connectivity would also probably be useful).

Total cost: around $600,000. Not so bad when you consider what the build-out cost is for a properly-built data room. If you order one today, you can have it in about a month.

I suppose that, once it’s assembled in the factory, it’s fairly easy to ship 🙂

Some more pics:

back-1.jpg

Here’s a look inside, with one of the racks partially slid out:

inside.jpg

There’s full power management inside:

power.jpg
A look at the wiring…

top.jpg

But, obviously, the intention of this thing isn’t to be a replacement for traditional data center space. There a few areas where this could be quite practical:

  • For any type of remote-location or rough terrain applications: Military applications. A large construction site. Iraq. The South Bronx. I suppose you just need to find some water, which is probably the most difficult resource to find in the middle of nowhere (will a water truck work?). Power can always be provided by a generator and network connectivity can be via satellite.
  • How about in a warehouse? Why would you spend time boxing up and building out a data center room? Just drop this box in a corner and hook it up.
  • Completely mobile applications. Perhaps as a remote data center for larger television broadcast operations? Put it on a truck and drive it around the country.
  • A quick disaster recovery and backup option. Maybe you can use one as temporary data center space if your in-office data room is under construction. Can you rent one of these for a couple of months?

I do have a few questions related to practical deployment, however:

  • How, exactly, DO you get water in the middle of nowhere. If I’m in the desert in Afghanastan, how can I keep this thing cooled? As I asked earlier, I wonder if you could cool it with mobile water tankers? Probably. I can’t imagine that it uses more water than one of those things could hold.
  • If I want to use one of these things today, where do I put it? And by “I”, I mean someone like me who doesn’t have access to a warehouse or someplace secure to install it. Do I rent some sort of parking space with a power and water hookup?
  • How is physical access security handled? Traditionally, storage containers are quite insecure – usually only protected by a padlock. I’m sure you don’t want to load it up with a million dollars worth of equipment and protect it with a $15 Master Lock. I inspected the locking devices on the Black Box and didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
  • What if you have compliance issues to adhere with? How can this thing fit within SAS 70 compliance, for example?

I’ll let Jonathan Schwartz answer those questions for me (Jonathan?).

There are some other neat things to note about it, though. For example, it can withstand an earthquake and, even under a 6.7 simulation, the water-filled pipes won’t burst.(The secret: The racks are on springs). Check out this YouTube video which shows the simulation:

Also, just like any other shipping container, you can stack these one on top of each other. (I wonder if they sell mobile stairs as an accessory?)

I once saw a television show where an industrial designer created a 500sq ft. studio apartment from a shipping container with collapsible walls. I wonder if we can take Sun’s cooling, wiring and power techniques to create some type of comfortable, usable, pre-fab housing? If you put a few of these side-by-side, they would probably rent for $3000 a month. Well, It appears that I’m not nearly the first to think about this, though, as there are a few websites out there which explore the concept. I even found an article about a shipping container “apartment building” which was approved by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Committee back in 2006 just a mile or so from where I live. Incidentally, if this could get approved by any sort of “preservation committee”, what type of structure DOESN’T get approved? (According to Emporis, the structure is yet to be built)

I still haven’t figured out what I’m going to do with it, but I know I want one…

The Wynn Las Vegas: Snack Anti-theft Technologies, Luxurious Suites and Free Drugs During your Stay

This past week, I had the opportunity to spend a few days at The Wynn Las Vegas and, let me tell you, good ol’ Steve (this Steve, not this Steve) really outdid himself this time. I was upgraded to a “salon suite”, which is more like a 2000-square foot apartment. “Wow”, is all I have to say.

But more on that later…first, a little tech talk, of course:

I have to admit that I tend to rack up too many charges from hotel mini bars over the course of the year. Much of this is attributed to the fact that I am at the point in my life where I don’t spend any more time in a place away from home than I have to. As a result, I tend to fly into places at odd times and the mini bar often serves as my only source of late night sustenance when I am parched from a long flight or need a chocolate fix. So when I arrived at The Wynn after a quick flight from my meeting in San Francisco, I was desperate for a bottle of water, only to find that it cost a whopping $8. Yes, the Wynn is expensive and yes, I realize that everything left on the Stip is no longer part of the “old Vegas” (99 cent shrimp cocktails), but $8 for a bottle of water is a bit over the top in my books.

So given the fact that Wynn minibar and snack tray on top of it is now, essentially, a snack and beverage vault holding about $700 worth of goods, it’s only natural that Steve’s flagship property has deployed the latest in snack anti-theft technology. When you approach the snack tray or open the mini-fridge, you are greeted with the following sign:

small-minibar2.jpg

Wow! Pick it up for 60 seconds and you get charged???

Heaven help you if you accidentally knock over the snack tray. You better have some serious luck at the blackjack tables to pay for it.

This got me thinking about the technology behind this:

  1. Someone designed a snack tray that can sense when you remove an item from it.
  2. Someone designed a refrigerator that can do the same thing.
  3. Each designated spot on the snack tray and refrigerator must know what type of item is in each individual slot. e.g. If you remove an $8 bottle of water, it shouldn’t charge you for a $5 bottle of Diet Coke.
  4. Once an item is removed for more than 60 seconds, the snack tray and refrigerator must then “talk back” to some sort of magic snack-tracking super computer, sunk deep within the bowels of The Wynn. Thus, the refrigerator and snack tray must be connected to some type of local network. (Images of Oceans 11 kept coming to mind – perhaps the gigantic computer in the basement of the Bellagio isn’t controlling security at all. Perhaps it monitors snacks?)
  5. The computer – we’ll call it the “snack tracker” – needs to interface with the hotel billing system so that the charge will show on in your account.

This raises a few interesting questions:

  1. Who the hell took the time to design this stuff?
  2. What type of infrastructure is behind the snack tracker? What level of high availability is built into the infrastructure? Presumably, the there is a average amount spent per hour on mini-bar purchases at The Wynn, so there should be an associated cost with each hour of downtime.
  3. Is there a manual backup process in place?
  4. What is the cost savings this provides the hotel? After investment in infrastructure, “intelligent” refrigerators and snack trays and ongoing maintenance, I assume the hotel realizes cost savings by reducing the amount of people required to manually check the minibar, as well as more accurate billing? This still doesn’t do away with manual intervention with the minibar – they still need someone to stock it, although I am sure they are working on a solution for that as well.
  5. Given that a person still must be involved, how do they protect against human error? What if the minibar stocker accidentally placed a bottle of Crown Royal in the Bacardi slot and I was charged an extra $4?

I wondered just how responsive the minibar system was. Is it a real-time system? Well, luckily, like most hotels, The Wynn gives you the ability to view your room charges on your TV, so I thought it would be good to conduct a little experiment. I would crack open the minibar, help myself to a refreshing-yet-overpriced carbonated beverage, wait for the 60-second “snack inspection grace period” to expire and then check my room charges through the television.

Wouldn’t you know it – a little over sixty seconds later the charge for the Diet Coke showed up on my room bill? So yeah, it works pretty close to real-time?

I’m just curious: Has anyone been able to pull off a Mission Impossible or Indiana Jones-like swap job to fool the minibar? Maybe replace a bottle of Jack Daniels with a mini bottle of the “citrus lime” body lotion from the bath?

The technology placed in hotel rooms today simply amazes me. You may recall my account of the San Francisco St. Regis’s over-engineering with the computer placed in each room (read: The St. Regis San Francisco: When your Hotel Room Needs to be Rebooted):

photo-2.jpg

Other than the perplexities associated with the minibar, I must say that my stay here was amazing, in part to the massive suite that I was put in (there is a story behind how I got this room, but I’ll leave that for another day). It pretty much contained all the amenities that one would need for a comfortable adventure on the Strip or a quite night in with Paris Hilton, including:

A specious living room with Strip views:

img_0154.jpg

Large bedroom:

img_0159.jpg

Two bathrooms and a master bath that was larger than my entire bedroom back at home:

img_0162.jpg

A massage table room. Or, as I like to call it, the “getting-a-happy-ending-somewhere-off-the-strip-is-just-too-sleazy room”:

img_0165.jpg

A bar (shown here, stocked for a pre-dinner cocktail gathering I had there the last night):

img_0174.jpg

And cocaine. Errr, yes, a bit of blow, as well. Given the the size of this room and the cost associated with it, it didn’t surprise me, but one of my colleagues spotted a small baggie hidden inside a living room vase (why she was inspecting the vases in the suite is an entirely different question). After further inspection, yes, it was cocaine:

img_0175.jpg

For the record, we flushed it. Although, the room will always be remembered in everyone’s mind as “The Lindsey Lohan Suite”. As the overly-used cliche goes, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”, and I’m sure, somewhere in this world, there is one junkie who is pretty damn upset about what he left behind…

I am back in Vegas in two weeks to speak at another conference, but I am sure that my stay across the street at Treasure Island will be nowhere where as fun as my adventures at The Wynn. Thanks, Steve.