SGI changes tack, builds standard data center containers

Its Universal models will be compatible with a much wider range of server and storage equipment

SGI is making some big changes to its ICE Cube family of containerized data centers, adding new models that will be able to house standard server racks for the first time.

Its new Universal containers, due in the third quarter, will be able to accommodate all of SGI's server and storage gear, including its Altix UV scale-up and Altix ICE scale-out supercomputers. Until now its containers have been designed primarily for SGI's proprietary, half-depth Rackable servers.

Because the new containers will use standard racks, customers will also have the option to use server equipment from other vendors. That brings SGI's strategy in line with those of IBM, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and the other big container vendors. Sun Microsystems was also in the containers game, but it's unclear if Oracle will continue to sell those products. Oracle has declined repeated requests to comment on its plans for containers, and most of the links on its Web page for Sun's containers lead to a general-purpose customer support page.

None of the vendors wants to sell a container filled with third-party gear -- it wouldn't make business sense. But they give customers the option to reuse some existing third-party equipment alongside their own. "If customers want to deploy some existing racks in a container alongside SGI equipment, that's the sort of flexibility we want to provide," said Geoffrey Noer, senior director of product marketing at SGI.

SGI, under its former name of Rackable Systems, helped pioneer the market for containerized data centers, which cram the essential parts of a data center into customized 20- or 40-foot shipping containers. Rackable acquired bankrupt HPC vendor Silicon Graphics last year and changed the combined company's name to SGI.

Other vendors have since leapt into the containers market, and SGI became the odd man out by not supporting standard racks. That wasn't a problem when its containers were aimed at Internet giants like Microsoft and Yahoo, who were willing to get on board with Rackable's nonstandard but very dense and energy-efficient half-depth servers.

But SGI now hopes to expand its container business into the HPC sector, including government labs, oil and gas companies, the military, and companies that design complex products like aircraft and automobiles. Those markets want the option to use its Altix systems, and possibly gear from other vendors too.

"If they want to drive any kind of volume, they need a more heterogeneous solution," said Michelle Bailey, a research vice president with IDC.

The container market is small but growing, according to IDC. The research firm expects just 84 containers to be sold this year, with the figure roughly doubling next year. Those estimates are from March, Bailey said, and IDC has heard about more orders since. "We're starting to hear about multiple containers in a single deal, and that's new," she said.

Enterprises have shied away from containers because they are unusual and perceived as risky, she said. "But as the economy picks up and there continues to be a shortage of good-quality data center space, this becomes a more viable option."

Containers provide an option for expanding data center capacity quickly and at fairly low cost. They have also been used at remote sites for disaster recovery and in the field for military use. Microsoft uses containers as a standard building block for some of its data centers, but that approach is unusual.

SGI will launch four Universal ICE Cube models in the third quarter. One is a 40-foot container that houses up to 19 server racks that can be rolled in and bolted down, making it easier to use some existing racks and redeploy them afterward. It uses a chilled-water, in-ceiling cooling system, and can handle up to 19 kW per server cabinet.

A similar 20-foot model has up to eight roll-in racks and will be the first from SGI to use air cooling. In a cool, dry climate the container can use outside air instead of chilled water, which helps reduce energy bills.

SGI will also release two 40-foot Universal containers with fixed racks, which allow greater density. One is optimized for storage and packs in 29.8 petabytes of disk space. The other is for power and compute density. Its 16 racks can each handle up to 45 kW, for a total of 46,080 processor cores in one container -- the most so far from SGI.

SGI is also launching 20- and 40-foot "hybrid" containers that continue to use its proprietary half-depth servers, but have space at one end for two standard roll-in racks. The hybrid containers are available today.

SGI wouldn't provide any pricing, saying it varies depending on the equipment inside. Other vendors charge a few hundred thousand dollars for the empty container, and prices can top a million dollars when the boxes are fully loaded.

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