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:


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:


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:


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


There’s full power management inside:

A look at the wiring…


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…

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

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