SGI launches data centre in a can

It's a data centre in a metal shipping crate. Now you can pop down the docks and buy a data centre in a tin!

SGI has launched a new concept in computing. It's an entire data centre in a ship's container.

They may look small on the outside, but these containers have Tardis-like qualities. Though it's only 8 feet by 6 feet, the container houses an astonishing 7 PB of data.

The data centre-in-a-can design is actually based on that of a container ship's metal cargo box, presumably to make it easier to ship and deliver. But that's not its major advantage, explained SGI's European vice president, Rod Evans. "The cost of ownership of the data centre in a box is much lower. You need less room to rent, and substantially less power to service the machinery," he said.

The cost of ownership of the data centre in a box is much lower.

Rod Evans,
European VPSGI

To match the 2,800 servers housed in an SGO container, a conventional data warehouse would have to be around 5,000 to 6,000 square feet. A traditional data centre positions its air conditioners on the perimeter of the building. This means the volume of air needing to be processed, and pumped, in a traditional data centre, is massively disproportional to the workload in a containerised data centre, where air never has to be circulated more than 6 feet.

Cooling a container is even more efficient because it keeps the chilled source of cooling air separate from the heated air already used to reduce the computer's temperature. Air and water temperatures in the container don't need to be chilled to the same extent as in a normal data centre: The containerised data centre can operate within a greater temperature range. Its air and water can be allowed to increase up to 9 degrees Celsius higher than could be tolerated in a traditional data centre.

The upshot is a much more energy efficient data centre, claimed Evans.

Google and Microsoft are customers, and other enterprises are target markets. One client even placed one of the containers in the North Pole, the company said.

On the downside, this kit is not cheap -- it retails at around £5 million.

"It runs at 320 kilowatts, which is a massive saving. We think it will save large enterprises around 30% to 40% on running costs every year," said Evans.

Containers also make leasing a possibility, smoothing the way for investment when no capital expenditure is available. "Leasing definitely opens more doors, although [an equipment leasing company like Racal Instruments] has to be careful who it chooses as a customer, as they're very cautious about who they lend to now," he said.

The container model for data centres could change the way data centres are designed forever. But not overnight, admitted Evans. "There's too many parties -- such as air conditioning vendors -- that want us to fail. They've got a lot to lose," Evans said.

Nick Booth is a contributor to

Read more on Datacentre capacity planning