By Carl HoweApologies for the poor photo of the Sun ad below - it's the best I could do on short notice before the announcement today.
Sun Microsystems (SUNW) is about to make good on an idea that Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) has been working on for more than a year: building a self-contained data center inside a standard 20-foot shipping container that can be moved by rail, sea, or truck. It's an extremely cool idea, and is covered today by John Markoff in the New York Times and by The Wall Street Journal (sub. req.).
This is the ultimate computing commoditization play. Danny Hillis had probably the best quote in the Times.
Long an advocate of the concept of utility computing, analogous to the way electricity is currently delivered, Mr. Hillis said he realized that large companies were wasting significant time assembling their own systems from small building blocks.
“It struck me that everyone is rolling their own in-house and doing manufacturing in-house,” he said. “We realized that this obviously is something that is shippable.”
And, in an increasingly environmentally-conscious business environment where power is a major cost, the system breaks some new ground:
Sun has applied for five patents on the design of the system, including a water-cooling technique that focuses chilled air directly on hot spots within individual computing servers.
The system, which Sun refers to as “cyclonic cooling,” makes it possible to create a data center that is five times as space-efficient as traditional data centers, and 10 percent to 15 percent more power-efficient, Mr. Schwartz said.
And since the system is water-cooled, these systems could have a fascinating dual-use application in northern climates. The warmed water can be used as a heat source for adjacent buildings. With 80% of power in a data center being converted directly into heat, the ability to heat an office while providing it with computing services is even more of a value to business buyers.
We have to give kudos to Sun's CEO, Jonathan Schwartz, and his team for their vision and thinking in bringing this product to market. With data centers running from $250 million to a billion dollars to build, Sun's Blackbox changes the economics of that market by starting around $500,000. That's like IBM selling $5,000 PCs that could do the work of $500,000 DEC mainframes -- and I predict it will be just as disruptive.
Assuming Sun delivers on its promise to sell and lease these systems in the second half of 2007, this could easily be one of the most transformational computing products of the decade for business. It changes data centers from a build-it-yourself business to one where they are available off the shelf and on demand. And, like the standardized shipping containers in which they are built, most people will never give them a second thought.