Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sealed Containers: Reality or Myth?

One of the interesting debates for those looking at containerized data centers is whether or not containerized data centers need to be serviceable in the field. Different products on the market today take different approaches:
  • The Sun Modular Datacenter (nee "Blackbox") provides front and rear access to each rack by mounting the racks sideways and using a special tool to slide racks into the center aisle for servicing.
  • The Rackable ICE Cube provides front access to servers, but the setup doesn't lend itself to rear access to the servers.
  • HP's Performance-Optimized Datacenter (POD) takes an alternative approach: there's a wide service aisle on the front, but you need to go outside the container to get to the back side of the racks via external doors.

Some industry notables have advocated even more drastic service changes: James Hamilton (formerly with Microsoft, now with Amazon) was one of the early proponents of containerized data centers, and he has suggested that containerized data centers could be sealed, without the need for end-users to service the hardware. The theory is that it's cheaper to leave the failed servers in the rack, up until the point that so many servers have failed that the entire container is shipped back to the vendor for replacement.

How reasonable is this?

Prior to the advent of containers, fully-configured racks (cabinets) were the largest unit of integration typically used in data centers, and these remain the highest level of integrated product used in most data centers today. How many data centers seal these integrated cabinets and never open the door to the cabinet throughout the life of the equipment in that cabinet? This is perhaps the best indicator as to whether a sealed container really matches existing practices.

We had looked at the "fail in place" model in the company where I work, but it was difficult for managers to accept that it was okay for some number of servers to be failed in a rack. As long as the cost of fixing the hardware is cheaper than the cost of buying a new server (or the equipment is under warranty), most finance people and managers want to see the servers in a rack functional.

What do you think? Do you see people keeping cabinets sealed in data centers today? Does fail in place make sense to you?

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