It could be the largest appliance available for the data centre to-date.

Two companies have separately announced the availability of a preconfigured, self-contained data centre that can instantly add up to 1,200 servers and 3.5 petabytes of storage to your network and, the manufacturers claim, significantly decrease your energy bills.

Rackable Systems and Sun Microsystems each revealed their "data centre in a box" concept earlier this year. Rackable's 40-foot Concentro and Sun's 20-foot Project Blackbox feature racks of servers and storage stationed in a shipping container.

The container-based model, which is still in its infancy, allows companies of all sizes to locate their data centres anywhere there is power, cooling and a network connection. Analysts say this could be a godsend for those struggling to deal with the high cost of energy and lack of real estate in densely populated areas.

Neither vendor has any customers that are yet willing or able to talk about their deployments, so it's early going for this concept, without any proven ROI. Sun revealed that its first customer, Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre, plans to use Project Blackbox to "rapidly expand its high-performance computing and data centre capabilities for its physics and astrophysics research." Meanwhile, Rackable says its first Concentro customer is a "leading Internet company" that it refuses to name.

Analysts give the idea high marks, though.

"This gives you the ability to add a big chunk of processing power and storage without the headache of having to figure out how to design a data centre from the ground up," says Andreas Antonopoulos, a senior partner at consultancy Nemertes Research.

In fact, the containers are designed to literally be plug and play. "It's best to think about these as a large version of a network appliance. You assume they've configured everything from the cable and cooling optimally so you can just plug it in," Antonopoulos says.

While Rackable populates its container with its own servers, Sun offers users the ability to mix and match Sun servers with other platforms. "These are the same rack systems and servers you would use in a data centre. The only difference is that they've deployed in a shipping container instead of a building," says George Hamilton, director of enterprise infrastructure at Yankee Group Research.

Both companies say their products offer organisations a lower upfront capital expenditure as opposed to building a data centre from the ground up. While Sun says its pricing varies depending on the blend of servers and storage, Rackable says its offering starts at $2 million to $3 million fully populated, versus $20 million or even more for a new data centre.

Sun is aiming Project Blackbox at a number of industries, including airlines, manufacturing, oil and gas, telecommunications, media and entertainment, and education.

For its part, Rackable is also targeting large companies with ever-expanding data server and storage needs.

Conor Malone, director of data centre solutions at Rackable, says corporations and data hosting providers that have reached capacity at their buildings are prime candidates for containers. For instance, a financial services firm in the heart of New York might place a container on the rooftop as an extension to its data centre. "A lot of campuses are built in such a way that they mis-estimated what floor space they'd need. With Concentro, you can put an incredible amount of compute technology in a small footprint," he says.

The mobility is also a plus. Darlene Yaplee, Sun's vice president of marketing and business operations for Project Blackbox, says the containers require only a water supply and chiller for cooling and a building grid or gas-powered generator for power.

She says this simplicity makes the product attractive to government agencies and companies that are looking for ways to mobilise their data centre infrastructures. For example, a government relief agency could roll one of the data centre containers into a disaster-stricken area to support the rebuilding of infrastructure.

Oil companies could use and reuse the containers on oil rigs to conduct seismic modelling. And the military could add enormous compute power to the battlefield.

Yankee's Hamilton says the containers offer two big benefits: getting data centres closer to inexpensive power sources and closer to customers. "You no longer need huge, monolithic data centres that are huge power drains," he says.

Instead, companies can place the containers close to inexpensive and "green" power sources such as hydroelectric power plants, Hamilton says.

The location flexibility can also help speed applications. "Data centres used to be collocated at the carriers' points of presence," he says. But with 40 percent of the workforce going mobile, companies need a different approach to their data centre planning. With the containers, IT groups can easily put data centres near their users around the world and see application performance gains, Hamilton says.

Sun also claims that Project Blackbox can be up and running in one-tenth the time it takes to design, build and deploy a traditional data centre.

Bottom-line boost

Sun's Yaplee says the containers are energy savers even without being near green power sources. She estimates that users will immediately see an average of 20 percent in energy cost reductions compared with traditional data centres.

"Project Blackbox has an innovative water-cooled design and dense form factor that enables it to cool more efficiently and effectively than a traditional data centre," she says. She adds that water cooling is more efficient than air cooling and that Project Blackbox, which can support up to 1,000 x64 cores or 2 petabytes of storage, can run a 200-kilowatt compute load in only 160 square feet. "A typical data centre running the same load would be four times as large. That's four times as much empty space that would have to be cooled," she says.

Both Sun and Rackable create efficient power and cooling within the boxes themselves.

Malone says Concentro, which can house up to 1,200 servers or 3.5 petabytes of storage, leverages piped water cooling and DC power. Fans draw air through radiators between each rack and through the servers. He calls it a very efficient system that can dramatically reduce cooling costs compared with a traditional data centre. He adds that the next generation of Concentro will be even more advanced without needing water.

Built-in redundancy

For companies that need fail-over capabilities for their data infrastructures, this is an easy way to gain that redundancy. "The containers automatically build redundancy into your environment. With virtualisation, you can easily move one live server to another," Hamilton says.

He adds that you can use the containers to do a technology refresh as well, with the box acting as a temporary data centre while the primary data centre is upgraded.

Yaplee says she envisions both long-term and short-term use of the boxes. "A company might originally use it for a short-term migration from an older data centre and then reconfigure it and move it off to disaster recovery," she says.

Sun is considering a leasing programme for the boxes but has not released details.

Security and the elements

The containers, which can be transported via truck, rail and ship like other intermodal freight, may seem more exposed than their traditional data centre counterparts, but Sun and Rackable say that's not so. "The containers themselves are as robust and weatherproof as brick-and-mortar structures," Malone says.

The sealed boxes, which are often unmarked, feature high-level security, including GPS systems to track the containers, smoke and fire alarms, surveillance cameras, and double-door entry. "We only use the back 30 feet on Concentro, so there's a vestibule in front that you can set up a security checkpoint or protect the data centre from inclement weather," Malone says.

Hamilton recommends building an infrastructure over the boxes to protect them from the elements, such the intense California sun. "Otherwise, your cooling costs could go through the roof," he says.

He also suggests adding centralised remote monitoring of the boxes. "These are essentially supposed to be lights-out environments, but you have to keep watch," he says.

Nemertes' Antonopoulos agrees and says you have to take precautions to make sure that your container data centre can't be stolen. "You don't want someone lifting your container onto a truck and driving it away," he says.

Gittlen is a freelance writer based in Boston in the US and the author of Computerworld's "Networking Know-How" column.