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Golden's Rules: Sun's Linux-friendly, virtual, portable data center

Sun Microsystem's Project Blackbox – a virtualized data center in a box -- just might be a revolutionary concept. Inside the package, it's certainly a better mousetrap for Sun, at the very least because it's not a Sun operating system-only offering. Yes, folks, I actually saw servers containing Linux and Windows on virtual machines inside Blackbox.

There hasn't been much press about the Linux and open source side of Sun's announcements last week. Before the Blackbox unveiling, John Fowler -- Sun executive vice president, systems group -- described Sun's virtualization strategy, which includes non-Sun products like Linux, VMware, and Xen.

Sun is coming out of the darkness at last, changing its historical attitude of It's Only Good If It's Invented Here (IIGIIIH). Clearly, Sun has gotten the message that its customers want to run what they choose, not choose what their vendors want them to run. I think this is extremely smart on Sun's part, as it moves them from a highly technical sale with a limited portion of the IT market available to them to delivering products that are clearly more generally accepted by a much larger potential market.

Seeing Sun describe a broader palette of products was cool.

It was also cool inside the Sun Blackbox. In another change from Sun's IOGIIIH, the sample container was filled with Opteron-based dual processor boxes. This is important, since Opteron chips sip power, running at much lower wattages (and temperatures) than older chips.

There's more evidence that Sun is listening to customers: The company has moved from increasing data center capacity with build-to-order program systems to stack-as-needed systems. Using virtualization, companies can incrementally add processing capacity on as-needed basis. And boy, is this solution just in time, because the build-to-order way has packed data centers to the breaking point.

At the launch, Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz noted that the progress of Moore's Law serves SMBs who enjoy the benefits of getting next year's model more cheaply than today's. It doesn't serve compute-intensive "Web 2.0" firms like, say, Google and Citigroup that need to grow their computing power faster than the Moore's Law growth model can accommodate. These companies need to rapidly increase computing capacity, but the continuing costs of building new data centers are onerous. Schwartz cited an average new data center cost of about $250 million.

Beyond that, power costs are a major concern for these types of computing users. Many "Web 2.0" companies find that power is their second highest operating cost, after personnel.

So, what to do?

Sun's answer is to create virtualized data centers in the form of container-sized computing modules. Each container contains two racks of servers that extend the length of the interior (20 feet) networked together. All you need to do to get one up and running is to plug in power, network connectivity, and a water source to the external fittings. One might think of this offering as being analogous to the recent offering of factory-built housing designed to replace on-site "stick-built" residences.

The Sun Blackbox prototype displayed at the launch held 1.6 petabytes of storage and had enough computing capacity to be one of the top 200 supercomputers in the world. That datacenter can be put on a flatbed truck and shipped anywhere in the world. As computing requirements increase, a company can incrementally add additional containers.

Sun envisions these containers going into low-cost warehouse space or on the roofs of buildings. The Blackbox's external hatches are tied into the owner's own alarm system, so an immediate notification of tampering occurs.

The one thing I felt that Sun missed out on in their presentation was pushing their new 16-core Sun Fire boxes. These machines are also Opteron-based, but use Sun's new efficient interconnect mechanism which render cables unnecessary. Furthermore, they support very large memory sizes; the combination of massive processing power along with large memory support makes them perfect for server virtualization.

Overall, the value proposition is compelling. Most things in computing are moving from bespoke to commodity, part of the long march of IT becoming a low-margin, low-cost industry. Making raw computing power cheaper and faster to deploy is perfectly aligned with that march.

The whole Blackbox package – new-generation, low-power, virtualized servers running multiple operating systems – shows that Sun is back on track with where mainstream IT is heading.

Overall, I'd say the Project Blackbox and a broader Xen- and Linux-friendly concept is the right idea at the right time. Now it's up to Sun to beat out the knockoffs and sell the package.

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