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Summary:

The prospect of outsourcing servers and storage to the cloud has an irresistible lure of operational simplicity and cash efficiency for today’s application developers. Cloud computing vendors help operate social networking applications, micro-blogging sites, global gaming networks and a plethora of applications that we use everyday. […]

veraritruck1 The prospect of outsourcing servers and storage to the cloud has an irresistible lure of operational simplicity and cash efficiency for today’s application developers. Cloud computing vendors help operate social networking applications, micro-blogging sites, global gaming networks and a plethora of applications that we use everyday. Yet, as successful and economically desirable as clouds have been for many organizations, outsourcing servers and storage causes a serious emotional and operational dilemma for the hardened breed of systems administrators called server huggers.Everyone working in and around the Internet knows a server hugger. Server huggers relish spending time in air-conditioned data centers, sitting on raised floors under florescent lighting with a laptop connected to a console port of a server (or, if they are lucky, standing against a server rack using a dedicated terminal and a slide-out keyboard tray). They spend hours staring at command-line on a terminal and at notebooks of commands, passwords and IP addresses.

Server huggers like being near their servers -– they feel that the emotional well-being and efficient operation of their servers requires them to be physically close at all times. And while it may be easy to scoff at server huggers and their technical idiosyncrasies, it is this same breed of folks that keep the applications running on the Internet — we would all be grasping to master our social graph, unable to micro-blog to our abundant followers and forced to live in our real life without them.

But server huggers face an impending crisis — the data centers that host their servers in many large metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco are increasingly filled. It is unfulfilling to hug a server that sits in a cardboard box because there is no rack space left in a data center, so server huggers have been scrambling to put their servers in geographically desirable locations that do not require new construction or an exorbitant budget.

And that got me thinking: Does the data center of the future look like a mobile home park? A mobile home park provides a place for you to park a single-wide or double-wide home and some basic utilities — power, roads, mail, etc. Yet, unlike seemingly every person on the Jerry Springer Show, servers do not operate well in mobile homes. However, as Microsoft, HP, Verari and others have shown, high density blade servers can be packed with hundreds of terabytes of storage, cooled and operated efficiently inside standard shipping containers. Maybe instead of more metropolitan data centers for the server huggers, we need container parks.

A container park would be on a plot of land within a metropolitan area (or on the immediate outskirts) and provide basic services to host containers filled with servers. Container parks could be located in spare lots close to power generation facilities, or be set up along a high-bandwidth fiber routes or even adjacent to a telecommunications facilities.

Compared to building, a top-tier data center that can cost $1,000 per square foot, setting up a container park could be done relatively cheaply — all is needed is a plot of land with the appropriate physical security, a power distribution plant, backup generators and abundant Internet connectivity. These items are available in metropolitan locations where server huggers and their employers congregate. While the containers themselves are self-contained, there should be no reason that multiple organizations and their server huggers could not share servers in a single container. After all, server huggers already share cabinets and cage space in data centers today.

So, will container parks soon emerge as the next bastion of the server hugger? Given the choice of moving their beloved servers to the cloud or hugging them in a nearby cool container down the street, the choice seems somewhat obvious.

Image courtesy of Verari.

  1. Allan, this is a great post and a good idea. The economic attractiveness of mobile home parks and self-storage units is undeniable. A container park would cost more on a per square foot basis because of power issues, but significantly less than a data center, as you point out. And after 20 years of operations, you’d have a chunk of attractive appreciated real estate in a metro area.

    Compared with the plans to put data centers on moored converted container ships, however, I’m not so sure. The benefits of cooling using sea water vs electricity are huge. Then again, what’s a server hugger in Phoenix to do? No oceans nearby.

    If container parks catch on, I’m loathe to imagine what container vendors will do to the exterior of the containers. Ever since F5 put that glowing red logo on the faceplate of their appliances in 1997, there’s been an arm race to see who can make the server bezel with the most blinking bling. Let’s hope container park fashion is more sane.

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  2. Sun’s been betting on this for sometime. Check out their project blackbox http://www.sun.com/emrkt/blackbox/story.jsp
    Its not been as huge a success as they’d hope from the information I’ve seen, but could be wrong. Sun is a great innovator, but has lagged behind in execution!

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  3. The idea of mobile home parks for servers seems cool, but what happens when there’s a natural disaster and your precious servers are wrecked? Boring old concrete and steel buildings provide a lot more protection against hurricanes, tornados, floods, earthquakes, etc. Give the way climate change is going, the one thing we can expect in the next 20 years is more natural disasters, with less predictability.

    However,since it saves money and you can replicate server parks with a Google like architecture to ensure no real data or work is lost, why not? You just need to factor in the costs of replication/recovery, including hardware and bandwidth.

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  4. Containers won’t stop server huggers, they will just make them claustrophobic…

    There are a couple of basic assumptions that this seems to forget about the container data center model. First, you still need some basic inputs such as power and water. If this is going to be done at scale, I don’t believe that you would put the containers outside, rather it would be more like a bunch of containers in a warehouse building. This is being done by a couple of the cloud folks (MSFT is one high profile firm). This also allows you to control the physical security a bit more.

    The other aspect that seems to be missing is that the container is a rather large chunk of computing power. Most web applications run on a lot less than the 1000+ servers that a single container would hold. Unless you started partitioning the containers, it would be hard for folks to justify that much overcapacity. Under that model, you would still have some folks uneasy about physical security concerns and what would you do when 10 server huggers all needed to be working on their machines at the same time? Space would be tight…

    Lastly, trailer parks (as anyone from the midwest will tell you) seem to be magnets for tornadoes. Tornadoes and containers would not be a good mix, therefore, it would seem to still make sense to put these items in warehouse buildings.

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  5. I think this is a great idea as a DR solution. Imagine being able to bring up a secondary or tertiary site in a matter of weeks to provide a DR or backup solution to moving a primary DC to a new location.

    As Richard said, I would have concerns about using this type of facility as a primary location, but I see a lot of benefits as providing a DR or temporary DC solution.

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  6. [...] read on GigaOM Trailer Park 2.0: Where your data lives. Server huggers like being near their servers -– they feel that the emotional well-being and [...]

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  7. Server Hugger is an unfamiliar term to me, but I think I understand the basic intent.

    The mobile server park concept seems like a solution that may appeal to this type of individual. However, isn’t it simply easier to embrace a managed or hosted service solution? You say “the choice seems somewhat obvious.” Perhaps it will be to the most obsessive/compulsive IT manager, but is this really suitable for those in the mainstream?

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  8. David, you’re missing the point.

    Managed and hosted services have to live SOMEWHERE. Currently they live in expensive data centers. Those managed and hosted services employ lots of server huggers – because otherwise their managed and hosted clients wouldn’t have reliable service.

    Those data centers are expensive, in terms of real estate, building, electrical and cooling costs. To the extent you can reduce any of those costs, you can reduce the cost of operating a data center to provide managed and hosted services (or cloud services, which frankly is just another version of managed services, as far as I’m concerned).

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  9. @Dave Asprey – great point on the data centers on barges. But, as you point out there are plenty of server huggers who are land locked. Concerning container park bling, I’ve seen folks trick out their racks and cages before, so anything is possible!

    @Quli – You’re right – Sun does have containers for servers too. I’m not sure there are lots of server huggers that cozy up next to their Sparc hardware these days.

    @Richard – I was actually thinking of adding a part of the blog talking about disaster recovery. You could, like a mobile home, drive from one container park to another if you had adequate warning of an impending disaster. Or, as you point out, you could just hug your servers in two different container parks.

    @Chris Street – Claustrophobia aside, the main point I am making is that server huggers want their servers in a metro location. Real estate and build out costs are too high to do this at scale, so an outside container park on a small plot of land could make sense. In terms of power and water, you are right that a container would take some good amounts of power. I do think it would be less than the same number of servers in a data center as they would be more densely packed and cooled more efficiently. Concerning physical security in a single container, you are right there might be an issue there. Still, server huggers already share cages and racks (and half racks) so I think the precedent is there in the industry. Do you want to hug your server in a crowded room a few blocks away in the metro area or do you want to drive a few hours to get there? You do bring up a good point about tornadoes, but since I am advocating building container parks in a metro area I think we’re safe from being tornado magnets :)

    @Josh – thanks and good point about DR. Given the choice of having a part of a container on a plot of land downtown versus being hosted in the cloud or hours away and assuming the same prices, what would your choice be?

    @David, Business Technology Roundtable – Roger answered well (thanks!). The main point as I see it is that real estate for server huggers to host their servers in metro areas is scare and expensive. Can we put densely packed servers in containers and help alleviate the market scarcity at a reasonable price?

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  10. Happy Thanksgiving to all and thanks for your comments!

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