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Weekly Column

A Tradition of Empty Boxes: Sun announces the Google shipping container data center, but will it fly?

Status: [CLOSED] comments (23)
By Robert X. Cringely

Congratulatory e-mails started arriving on Monday as more than 100 readers eventually told me about Sun Microsystems' Project Blackbox, which is a data center in a shipping container. Announced officially on Tuesday, Blackbox is essentially the Google shipping container data center I described nearly a year ago, finally realized as a product. It's nice to be correct, of course, but are these two products actually one in the same? I think they are.

Google doesn't actually need Sun to build its mobile data centers, of course, but on the other hand, why not? Someone has to build them, and this new form factor is such that it will require a real assembly line, which Google may not want to build. But more likely this is Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt throwing a bone to his old company, where he was the longtime CTO before going first to Novell, then to Google.

There is a long history of customers building their own computers and, in fact, that's how Sun got its start as you can read starting in the next paragraph. Why Google isn't especially bothered by the idea of sharing this new form factor with present and future competitors is because the hardware and the shipping container don't really matter all that much. It's the software and data that matter to Google, and Sun has no right to license those. Ironically, this is a 180-degree flip from the attitude toward intellectual property that existed when Sun, itself, was formed.

I love the story about how Sun was founded as told to me long ago by Ralph Gorin, who for many years ran the computer networks at Stanford University. According to Ralph, Xerox had installed a couple Alto graphical workstations in the Carter White House, where they were noticed by resident spies from the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency. These spooks wanted GUI workstations, so they sent their IT people to Palo Alto to buy some from Xerox PARC.

Nobody really knew what an Alto cost, since the workstation had not been developed to sell. You could price out the components, of course, but that would pay nothing for the system software. So someone at PARC, sensing a lucrative sale to a customer known for buying $900 hammers, $1,300 toilet seats, and occasionally launching private wars on banana republics, decided to hit the feds with a huge bill -- one so staggering that not even the spies would consider paying it. Before flying back to Washington, however, they drove the two miles to Stanford for lunch with Gorin.

There they saw the Stanford University Network (S.U.N.) Workstation as designed by grad student Andy Bechtolsheim. The S.U.N. Workstation was a poor man's Alto with a robust version of Unix, a graphical user interface, local storage, mouse, and Ethernet. And the price was right, too -- that is if Andy B could get anyone to actually build the machines that the feds wanted to order.

Stanford, itself, wanted no part of the deal. Gorin didn't see the university as being in the computer business. University lawyers looked inside the S.U.N. Workstation box and decided that IT CONTAINED NO INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY. So they gave Andy permission to sell the boxes if they were built by an outside vendor using no university resources.

Notice the complete about-face here. Today, Google sees nothing strategic in the Blackbox hardware while 20+ years ago Stanford saw nothing strategic in the S.U.N. Workstation hardware OR software.

Poor Andy never found a manufacturer, either, though he visited every company of note in Silicon Valley including 3Com and IBM. The IBM meeting was especially important, so Andy, who did not own a suit, went for help to the Stanford Drama Department where they fitted him with a set of white tails for his "formal" meeting with IBM in San Jose. But since the Drama Department didn't have any size 13 formal shoes, Andy wore his sneakers.

For some reason, IBM didn't go for the manufacturing contract so Andy had no choice but to found his own company to build the boxes and thus Sun Microsystems was founded.

More than 20 years later Andy is back at Sun building leading-edge servers that may well populate the Blackbox. And it ought to be a lucrative market -- one of those unusual markets that didn't really exist until someone (in this case the guys at the Internet Archive, not Sun or Google) thought of it. Few people saw the need for such a mobile data center until one actually existed and now Sun will sell a ton of them -- in almost every case without hurting sales of its existing hardware, which means this new gizmo is good for business.

The beauty of a shipping container data center isn't just that it operates stand-alone and can be plunked down in the parking lot of your existing data center or dropped by helicopter on the roof of your headquarters building. A great proportion of its beauty lies in the shipping container's efficiency not as a server but as a network. It's the largest sneakernet ever built. Moving a petabyte of data across the country using even the biggest optical fiber connection could take weeks, but the Blackbox can be installed in at most a few days.

Companies with huge data centers will use Blackboxes like school districts these days use portable classrooms, distributing them as the computing load requires with installations that will be called temporary but may well end up being permanent, at least in terms of computer-years. And the part Sun really hopes for, of course, is that big customers will keep a Blackbox or two around just in case of emergencies. At $2 million per container, a couple hundred standby units mean real money to Sun, which could use it.

Expect, too, to see a new business appear with companies renting Blackboxes. And of course we'll see other vendors than just Sun building these things. After all, if you look inside there really is no intellectual property in there, so Sun can hardly claim an exclusive.

But one mistake I think Google and Sun have made is in the form factor, itself. A smart competitor to Sun (my guess is Google) would get to work on a Blackbox equivalent that doesn't fit in a shipping container, but rather in an airfreight container or Unit Load Device. The second largest of these puppies, the LD8, holds 243 cubic feet, which is about one quarter the volume of Sun's Blackbox. Still, you could stuff an LD8 easily with a thousand Opterons and half a petabyte of storage and instead of delivering it by sea at 10 mph or by truck at 60 mph, you could deliver it by air at 600 mph.

Not surprisingly, Page and Brin's Boeing 767-200 GoogleJet can carry seven LD8s, making it the fastest networking device ever built.


Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (23)

Bob, I almost had a minor coronary. Are you actually complimenting Sun Microsystems for doing something right? If Sun is putting Niagara I/II CPUs in those black boxes, then they are introducing intellectual property that no one else has. I don't believe that Intel, IBM or Intel have the capabilities (yet) of what the Niagara II CPU can do (which is coming out next year).

steveh | Oct 27, 2006 | 1:00PM

oops, meant:

"...Intel, IBM or AMD..."

steveh | Oct 27, 2006 | 1:01PM

Où est passé la grenouille?

marcv | Oct 27, 2006 | 1:39PM