APC plans new push into containerized data centers

The company will offer portable chillers and generators that should make containerized data centers more mobile

Power and cooling company APC by Schneider Electric will make a new push this year into the market for containerized data centers, this time including portable infrastructure gear such as generators and chillers.

Containerized data centers are customized 20- and 40-foot shipping containers crammed with high-density servers and storage equipment. They provide a way for companies to add computing capacity quickly to an existing data center, or to bring computing power into the field, for military use, for example.

The containers must still be hooked up to a power and cooling infrastructure, however, so they are often located within or near existing data centers. The new gear from APC should provide companies with more freedom as to where they locate their containers, said Steve Carlini, APC director of product management.

The containerized market is still relatively small and there may be few companies today that are interested in putting data centers in the middle of nowhere. But some vendors and analysts see them as an option for disaster recovery, particularly for companies that operate where natural disasters like earthquakes occur.

Microsoft has even floated the idea of putting a containerized data center in every town to deliver its online services. It sees them as highly energy efficient, and locating them close to customers would eliminate network latency.

APC has already developed some modular infrastructure products that are sold in Australia through a partnership with local vendor Datapod. Datapod sells several modules that use APC technology, including a Utilitypod with a built-in chiller and generator. A video shows how the modules fit together.

Later this year APC will announce plans to sell its own modular infrastructure products more widely, Carlini said. It's still deciding whether to sell them directly to customers or through partnerships like the one with Datapod.

APC's other partners include IBM, which said last month it will use APC's InfraStruXure power and cooling architecture in IBM's Portable Modular Data Center container products.

In some ways it will be a return to the containerized market for APC. The company was one of the first to offer a containerized data center, in about 2004, and used to drive them to trade shows and sales events on the back of a truck.

At the time they were a novelty. "We did end up selling some of them, but the whole disaster-recovery, portable data center idea wasn't really embraced at the time," Carlini said.

In 2007, APC was acquired by Schneider Electric, which makes generators and chiller equipment. Last year the combined company stopped marketing its containers while it figured out its new strategy.

"We're coming back with a different approach," Carlini said. "We'll still do an IT module, but now we'll have more modules on the electrical side."

Meanwhile other vendors have jumped in, including Sun Microsystems (now part of Oracle), Rackable Systems (now called SGI), IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell. Sales are still relatively low, however -- 60 containerized data centers were sold worldwide last year, Carlini said, citing a figure from IDC.

The volumes are small partly because not many companies buy that much equipment in one go. "How many companies need to deploy 2,500 servers all at once?" he asked. But the products are big-ticket items. HP's 20-foot POD, or Performance Optimized Data Center, announced this month, costs US$600,000 without the IT equipment inside.

Carlini didn't give specifics about the products APC will roll out but suggested it will offer several options, including "reference designs" that can be optimized around compute capacity, energy efficiency or cost. Like other companies, it will use standard racks that can hold IT gear from a mix of vendors.

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