Rackable Goes Mobile. Does Two Make a Trend?

Go to Sun.com today, and one of the revolving lead articles is
Peter Burrows

Go to Sun.com today, and one of the revolving lead articles is "Project BlackBox Goes on Tour". Project Blackbox, of course, is Sun's data-center-in-a-shipping-container, that drew much interest when it was announced last year.

Now, Rackable Systems is rolling into the pre-fab data center business as well.

Today it unveiled its Concentro system, which crams as many as 1,200 of Rackable's servers or up to 3.5 petabytes of storage into a plain old shipping container. Thanks to a new cooling scheme, the company claims Concentro will use 80% less energy than traditional data centers. One secret: it has removed the failure-prone plastic fans found inside most servers. Instead, more efficient impellers pull water-cooled air to chill racks of gear at once, rather than machine by machine.

But is Rackable crowing about an achievement that on the surface seems like blatant me-too-ism? Giovanni Coglitore, Rackable's jovial co-founder, insists not. "We've been able to create a modern data center that breaks all kinds of records in terms of density and energy efficiency," he says. Those are precisely the problems that are keeping many CIOs up at night, given that many of them are running out of floor space (and operating budget that includes sky-high power bills, not only to run all the gear but to cool it).

Rackable's elevator pitch is a strong one, given high energy prices, low availability of data center space and the sudden ubiquity of the green tech craze. Rather than spend three years building a massive new buildings and hiring armies of techies to buy, install and operate gear from scads of different tech suppliers, companies (or Universities, or Army divisions) could simply roll a Concentro into the parking lot or other available space and get cranked up. So long as there's a source of power and cool water, almost anywhere will do. The company says some customers are even thinking about running them near waste dumps, where they can make use of methane. And when a Concentro's innards become obsolete, it could literally be driven to a recycling center and dis-assembled for parts.

While Rackable has had its share of problems, the company has proven its ability to be out in front of its server rivals on the big usage trends. It got its start in 1999, making specially-configured racks of servers for an upstart called Google. Back then, Rackable's major differentiation was loading lots of cheap servers into a rack, in a way that made it easy to simply take them out and throw them out when they failed. It's an approach that Google built on when it famously began building its own server infrastructure.

So far, Rackable has announced, sort of, the sale of only one system. It is to a major Internet provider (probably Microsoft or Yahoo, the company's two largest customers). But if the trend takes off, it could reinject some life into Rackable's depressed shares. The company would surely charge a big premium over standard deals. And by selling entire data systems, it would sell more of its products and services--keep out rivals' products. The company has already started making its own storage gear, and plans to start building its own network switches as well. "We're finally going to be able to do data centers the Rackable Way," says Coglitore.

On paper, that could create some interesting economics. Coglitore claims one prospective customer has figured out that it could buy 100,000 servers, for the cost it would incur to build a new data center structure. Another plans to use a Concentro as the world's biggest USB drive, to back-up its data. Rather than incur networking costs to back-up corporate data via communications lines, it will simply drive a Concentro to the mirrored site. "If you figure it out an a miles-per-gallon basis, it's not a bad way to move data," says Conor Malone, the company's director of Data Center Solutions.

So what of Sun? Perhaps the market knew of Concentro's introduction, when rumors of a Sun acquisition of Rackable drove its shares up in late March. Certainly, Sun has similar goals to Rackable. Both want to sell to the biggest, boldest Net companies as customers--hopefully, by selling soup-to-nuts data centers rather than just the piece parts.

But here's a thought: maybe Michael Dell should be looking in this direction, as he labors to lift his company out of the low-end tarpit its stuck in.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.