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Micro-datacentre: What IT problems it solves and what workload systems suit it

A micro-datacentre (MDC) is a smaller, containerised (modular) datacentre system that is designed to solve different sets of problems or to take on different types of workload that cannot be handled by traditional facilities or even large modular datacentres.

Whereas an average container-based datacentre hosts dozens of servers and thousands of virtual machines (VMs) within a 40ft shipping container, a micro-datacentre includes fewer than 10 servers and less than 100 VMs in a single 19in box. Just like containerised datacentres, MDCs come with in-built security systems, cooling systems and flood and fire protection.

AOL uses a micro data center provided by AST Modular.

Their size, versatility and plug-and-play features make them ideal for use in remote locations, for temporary deployments or even for use by businesses temporarily in locations that are in high-risk zones for floods or earthquakes. They could even serve as a mini-datacentre for storage and compute capacity on an oil tanker.

Rise of containerised datacentres and micro-datacentres

The industry is seeing increasing use of modular or containerised server systems, with organisations such as Microsoft using a combination of approaches for its datacentres.

Moving away from complex bricks-and-mortar datacentres containing multitudinous servers, storage and network devices that required purchasing, implementing and maintaining, enterprises are seeing the advantages of these pre-designed, fully functioning “engineered systems”.

These engineered systems can come in many guises. The older, more traditional view of an engineered system would be of the mainframe or mini-computer, self-contained with its own compute and storage capabilities, with network interface cards (NICs) present to connect the system to the rest of the world. A more modern approach is through the use of converged systems, such as Cisco’s UCS, VCE’s V-Blocks or Dell’s Active Systems. These are pre-integrated, pre-built systems that can be implemented and used rapidly within an existing datacentre – provided that suitable space, power distribution and cooling are available.

The idea of a micro-datacentre is to take a standard rack-mount environment and add capabilities that a standard rack or a converged system would struggle to provide

Another mode of deployment is containerised systems: a standard road/shipping container packed with all the required equipment that just needs plugging into the mains and sometimes water for it to become operational. The container is otherwise self-contained; once it has done its job or its capabilities are no longer enough for the job, it can be removed from the rest of the system and replaced with relative ease.

But these options do not suit all needs. They are all primarily aimed at the larger end of the market, yet many small and medium-sized enterprises would like easier access to acquire, implement and run systems that can be used as stand-alone platforms without needing a specific datacentre facility. Even large organisations may need a more specific system that enables them to run a more physical workload or to airlock an application from the rest of the technology platform for reasons such as data security.

Where micro-datacentres come in

The idea of a micro-datacentre is to take a standard rack-mount environment and add capabilities that a standard rack or a converged system would struggle to provide, creating a self-contained platform where a containerised solution would be too large or expensive for what is needed.

Companies such as Rittal and ASTModular cater for this market. AST’s micro-datacentre offering – Smart Bunker is designed to host 85 VMs within a 42U rack assembly, while other newer MDCs are even smaller – is 23U size deployed in a single rack enclosure.

Each system provides a secure enclosure that is self-contained with heat management and insulation, with low-cost energy management. Many have optional extras, such as defence against external fire and flood threats, as well as biometric entry systems (for both systems administration and physical entry to the systems for equipment replacement) and fully monitored events, such as any attempt to vandalise the system or to move it from its installed position.

Being based around a standardised 19in rack, these micro-datacentres can house any IT equipment that would normally be found in a rack in a normal datacentre. However, the idea behind a micro-datacentre is that it should be preconfigured and delivered to carry out specific tasks.

Each system provides a secure enclosure that is self-contained with heat management and insulation, with low-cost energy management

For example, ASTModular’s Smart Data Safe is a highly secure “NAS in a box” system designed to provide data security against fire, flood, theft, vandalism and electromagnetic pulse. The Smart Data Safe is an on-site backup system that gets around any issues of latency and transactional loss as seen in most off-site backup systems. It comes with extensive in-built systems monitoring capabilities, enabling a remote administrator to be advised of any problems. If a problem is perceived to be of critical nature, the Smart Data Safe will automatically shut down to preserve the validity of the data stored on it.

Bridge the gap

The micro-datacentres of another supplier, Panduit, are not designed to be as rugged and secure as Rittal’s or ASTModular’s, but are specifically designed to bridge the gap between the “standard” IT environment and the industrial platforms of, for example, production line systems. 

Aimed at industrial systems integrators (ISI), Panduit's system provides a hardened, secure environment in a half- or full-rack unit. This allows, for example, an ISI to implement a Cisco/Rockwell Automation recommended Converged Plantwide Ethernet/IP architecture for manufacturing, including a demilitarised zone (DMZ) with firewall appliances and redundant compute and switching resources in a single unit, preconfigured off-site for fast deployment.

Most of these systems are also built for expansion – extra units can be bought and plugged in alongside existing units to give a rapid, easy means of dealing with any need for extra resources.

A micro-datacentre can also be a good solution for organisations that deal with applications and data requiring higher levels of security. With the right resources in the rack, data can be air-locked so it remains within the rack except when the right, multi-factor identification factors have been provided.  Even users with privilege to access the rest of the IT environment can be excluded from the system. Only those who have to have access are granted it without the need for additional security software being added to the architecture. 

Correctly configured micro-datacentres can suit the needs of SMEs that do not have established datacentre infrastructures

An example here is Elliptical Mobile Solutions and its RASER DX and HD systems.  Elliptical has also created a complete stand-alone VPLEX system in conjunction with EMC, Microsoft and AVNET.

Correctly configured micro-datacentres can suit the needs of SMEs that do not have established datacentre infrastructures.

Gain flexibility

A company without a physical datacentre could use a self-contained micro-datacentre to gain the flexibility of having multiple servers, along with required storage and networking, in a single unit that can be positioned pretty much anywhere in its building. Even where an organisation is looking at using a co-location facility, the extra security and disaster-proofing that a micro-datacentre can offer might be worth looking into. 

A surprising player here is Huawei, whose MicroDC3000L 24U systems can be used in environments of less than 100 users in an unattended, lights-out operations mode.

In a world where it is getting increasingly difficult to pick the right mix of physical and virtual platforms for your business’ needs, micro-datacentres may be seen as just another confusing tool in the box. However, they make sense for specific types of workload and for specific types of environment.

Micro-datacentres may not come into play too much for large enterprises overhauling their big facilities,; they are more suitable for SMEs without datacentres, or for a big enterprise’s remote branch that is located in a developing, or natural disaster-prone, area.

The age of build-your-own, based on racks with self-assembled compute, storage and network components, is well on the way out.  Modularisation, along with the use of external cloud-based systems, is the future. The key is to ensure that datacentre professionals choose the right mix.


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This was first published in June 2014

 

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