Thursday, July 2, 2009

Common standards, uncommon advantages!

I am still catching up with work following HP’s Technology Forum and Expo (HPTF&E) in Las Vegas. I will be leaving for vacation at the end of this week and that is only adding to the pressure to make sure I meet my commitments. The picture above is of me alongside HP’s “Performance-Optimized Datacenter” (POD) that was on display in a small exhibition space beneath the main expo hall.

Seeing a “standard” container used this way really took me back to my early days in IT. Some readers may remember my post from March 28, ‘08 “The need for standardization!” where I wrote “the time I spent working in the container shipping business really reinforced for me the value that comes from standardization ... (and) when it comes to standardization, we are beginning to see the same revolutionary approach to packaging appear in the computing industry. It is already well on its way when it comes to storage, and now it’s all about blades!”

Back in the early ‘70s I saw first-hand the value that came with embracing standards and if you recall the picture I selected to introduce the post, it featured containers being incorporated in London into structures as prefabricated, fully-equipped, housing modules. I am not sure I would welcome living on such intimate terms with containers, but with housing prices the way they have been in London lately, perhaps all I could afford would be one of these container “homes.”

But the appearance of standardization is not strictly limited to houses made from containers. As I looked out from the MIX, a bar atop THE Hotel, during a vendor reception for the NonStop community, I couldn’t help but see the rows of houses stretching out to the surrounding hills. The pale ochre stucco walls, and matching red tiles of dwellings all looking identical reminded me, quite unfortunately I suspect, of the folk singer Pete Seeger who had a hit back in the ‘60s singing:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.

But the rows of houses tailing off into the distance did give the appearance of a city that has standardized (through zoning regulations, of course), appears to be well managed (in terms of services), and with a uniformity that keeps pricing affordable. Well, at least from the vantage point of the MIX, some forty stories above it all. Surrounding a city like Las Vegas, I have no illusions that it supports any more an idyllic lifestyle than any other cosmopolitan city, and any viewer of the TV program CSI will equate this with something more toxic!

Clearly, the POD “boxes” on display at HPTF&E weren’t of the ticky-tacky variety. No stucco visible anywhere. Quite the opposite in fact as these were containers had been the subject of additional reinforcing and bracing – after all, each forty-foot container was equipped with a complement of 22 racks of processor blades and supporting storage. Not quite the kind that blends in with everything else you would typically see at a port or rail terminal – and definitely off-limits to most container fork-lift operators. Heavy-lift cranes only, please. But I like the concept of a data center in a box – and the unique “uncommon” advantages this use of common packaging could provide.

These larger, forty feet containers pack the equivalent computing power to some pretty big data centers. In his most recent blog posting “Sir, Your Data Center Has Arrived” Ron LaPedis wrote that the “POD is HP’s answer to SUN’s Project BlackBox, originally announced in October 2006, which is now sold as the Sun Modular Datacenter S20. However, Sun’s offering is a 20 foot container compared to the HP POD which is a 40 foot container.” He also gave us more details when he described how “the 40 foot HP container can house up to 3,500 compute nodes, or 12,000 LFF (3.5” hot pluggable) hard drives … a 4,000-plus square feet equivalent of a typical data center capacity.” In other words, what may be a 40 X 100 foot data center reduced to just 40 X 8 feet!

Perhaps it was Rackable Systems of Fremont, California, that started all of this when they introduced IT executives to their product MobiRack, an “all-in-one data center (with) capabilities for field deployments.” On the web site, they described how “data center deployments should no longer be limited to the physical confines of fixed, ‘brick and mortar’ facilities.”

While the MobiRack just had wheels underneath the racks, it wasn’t quite what we see today with HP’s POD. However, as Ron pointed out in his blog posting, when Sun introduced its Modular Datacenter all wrapped within an industry-standard twenty foot container, it did raise the ante. But HP’s forty foot container, supporting racks of Blades, is something else again, and really could meet the computing and storage needs of many industries.

Throughout HPTF&E, the message I heard on numerous occasions from NonStop product managers was “common standards, uncommon advantages!” And in reality, nothing reinforced this message more than seeing a data center in a box. A common industry-standard, general-purpose, container offering uncommon advantages with Blades. And in case anyone was wondering – yes, even NonStop is supported!

Capable of being easily and rapidly transported to any corner of the globe, the advantages of the POD should be quickly recognized. Whether part of an emergency response in a time of disaster, or in support of a new branch office in some technology-hostile region of the world, or even playing a role in the support of increasingly more sophisticated military applications. There was a time not that long ago when, worried about loosing its missile launch capabilities, the thought was to have them moving around the countryside on trains. However, with today’s missiles now a commodity item, should we expect to see the control systems charged with their oversight hidden in plain sight on a regular freight train? Just another blue container, right?

Blades are developing into a major success story and the rapidity with which they are finding a home in today’s data centers is creating problems for some IT managers. As one CIO I know posted to the LinkedIn Real Time View user group discussion “Sun-rise? or Sun-set! The latest according to Larry ...” there’s a concern over how “the weight is really a significant problem for more and more people. The floor loading on a fully populated rack of blades can exceed a mainframe's floor loading”

So now we can call our friendly HP sales rep, option up a couple of containers, and have these PODs dropped off in the car park. Maybe better if they were left under cover – whatever. Just bring the power to the PODs, or opt for the separate PowerHouse container from Active Power that provides the complementary power and cooling system to your POD (again, check out Ron’s post for more info), and you have none of the concerns about weight. Haven’t Telco’s been bolting servers to concrete floors for years? Running the cabling overhead in gantries rather than underneath below false floors? Obviously they knew something all those years ago as they “championed” primarily a rack packaging model.

Whether HP’s POD develops any major traction in the marketplace or not – and within my company Goldengate, there are views about PODs that suggests this could be a very limited market – what it visibly reinforces for me is how the march to greater miniaturization continues. Unabated! When I first walked into a data center, the mainframe’s “channels” (selector, and multiplexor) were stand-alone boxes. I even heard of one manager who had a plaque on his desk that simply read “it’s not a computer unless I can walk through its channels!”

But today, the power contained within that data center is barely a fraction of a single Blade package. With common standards becoming even more dominant, will we see today’s POD nothing more that a board we insert into a desk? Or perhaps, a simple package populating future mobile devices? If you had suggested to me in the late ‘60s that everything I could see, within a huge sprawling data center of the day, would shrink to fit inside a game module, and kids everywhere on the planet would be connected, I would have viewed it as ludicrous. So why would it be far-fetched to think of what we see today in a forty-foot container as technology that, in perhaps ten years or thereabouts, occupy nothing more than a drawer?

In the opening session of this year’s HPTF&E, where HP talked so much about a future in which everything in IT is delivered as a service, Ann Livermore, Vice President of HP’s Technology Solutions Group (TSG), and Prith Banerjee, Senior Vice President and Research Director of HP Labs, both talked about the POD. And they were pretty excited by the potential of this usage of a common transportation packaging standard. But I have to believe it’s just one more milestone on the technology lifecycle curve. With miniaturization shrinking the real estate needed for computers and storage to about a quarter or a fifth of what was required a few years ago, as is so often quoted these days, shouldn’t we all be marveling about what’s to come?

One thing is for sure however, like the words Pete Seeger sang, in a decade or so, we will see “little boxes all the same.” Common standards, uncommon advantages, indeed!


JFH said...

"Little Boxes" was written by Malvina Reynolds about Daly City

Richard Buckle said...

In his July issue of Availability Digest, Bill Highleyman also covers the PODs. Check out:

Good stuff, Bill!