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I have just seen this video: Google container data center tour

What is not quite clear to me is, what's the benefit from placing the servers inside containers?

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Great question. Even though people see that companies are slowly switching to the container-in-a-datacenter methodology, it's good to ask why, and what the benefits are. – phuzion Aug 15 '09 at 3:51
up vote 5 down vote accepted

easier to move around [ eg to neighbor state that has cheaper energy because of some political turbulence ].

easier to do drop in replacement... whole container not just server-by server.

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Also has to due with cooling. Cooling smaller sections of data center is more efficient then cooling a whole data center when one area can be running warmer then others.

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I don't agree that this is true. You lose the economies of scale of cooling an entire data floor. Individual containers with their own individual cooling is going to be less effiecient overall. You can still have hot containers with a higher need and cool containers with a wasted cooling requirement. It's not like you can go round swapping coolers on them. In a datacenter with a decent system you can redirect airflow and a cool area gives up capacity to be used on a hot area. – JamesRyan Aug 15 '09 at 11:47
I don't think that it's entirely certain that you actually get any economies of scale when it comes to cooling a datacenter. To continue with the economic terminology, cooling a large data floor is just as likely to run into diseconomies of scale due to cannibalization from "hot spots" ruining average temperatures. That's what these containers prevent, the diseconomies of scale associated with cooling large floors. – Travis Bradshaw Jan 4 '10 at 21:20

The containers can be pre-build at a remote location and shipped to wherever they are required as a complete unit. When working on such a large scale it has a number of advantages.

  • Complete consistency, which itself brings many advantages
  • Reduced numbers of server build specialists, as few would be needed at the data centers themselves
  • Very much faster way to construct new data centers

The list goes on and on but the bottom line is large cost savings.

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I've had a good look inside one of the HP 'Pod' containers and although I thought they were great they were very expensive but importantly it made me take a step back and revise my thinking about what IS a data centre. Certainly the idea of spending millions building a traditional hot/cold-row room is starting to look old-hat, drawing ambient filtered air and simply expelling the hot air is much more progressive. The same goes for how much you should put in a rack, I see no reason why you shouldn't fill 50U racks to the top if you trust your air extraction, combining this with blades, virtualisation and converged network can make difference to initial and ongoing costs. So I think containers/pods are great but it's the paradigm shift that's more important - go see a container and let it open your mind :)

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In addition to the above:

  1. Better scaling of capital costs. Most datacenters aren't fully populated immediately after being built, which means that a lot of money gets tied up in things like the building shell, power distribution, uninterruptable power, etc, that sits idle. These container units are largely self-contained, so the costs don't hit until shortly before they are deployed.
  2. Portability is a big deal. In addition to making it easier to chase lower energy costs, as others have mentioned, they can simplify disaster recovery. In addition, they let massive computing power be deployed to a location relatively quickly and inexpensively. I had a friend working on a project that required crunching huge datasets. It was better for them to set up a container in the parking lot outside his office building than to have to push the huge datasets over a WAN to a big centralized datacenter somewhere.
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I have only one thing to add portability. My guess is that is they could take these pods pull them out and move them to a different datacenter. Lets say that this datacenter is paying $0.12 per kilowatt hour and there is another datacenter that just got cut a deal for $0.08. Now for the amount of power that these fully stocked pods consume, that is serious monies that could be saved without paying any more shipping costs then to move a trailer.

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Can you really just throw them on a flatbed and move them? Thinking vibration problems here. – Kyle Hodgson Aug 15 '09 at 5:19

3 primary benefits that appeal to different market segments:

  • Economies of Scale

For the large scale data center operators, containers provide the option of moving the unit of scale from the server or rack to the container. A container (potentially containing thousands of servers) can be treated as a unit of computing. Individual containers can be deployed and replaced as needed rather than spending administration time on maintaining and servicing individual servers or racks.

  • Flexibility / Incremental Capacity

Containers are an option for data centers at the threshold of their operating capacity, or for data centers that require a temporary capacity increase.

  • Energy Efficiency

Containers provide increased energy efficiency by isolating hot and cold air flows as well as reducing the amount of power required to move air using fans. However, these efficiency gains can be obtained in traditional data center designs through the use of air plenums.

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Most container systems convert from air to water and have water cooling, they don't use lots of air to cool a big space. Water carries heat more efficiently than air does. Water cooling infrastructure over 1Mw or so is the same tech all thermal power stations use; and very mature and efficient, of and it scales. – Tim Williscroft Jul 26 '10 at 4:13

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