Blog Post

AOL building refrigerator-sized data centers

Updated: AOL (s aol) is taking its flexible infrastructure strategy to a whole new level of flexibility by building data centers about the size of French door refrigerators. AOL Services CTO Mike Manos wrote about the units — part of a project code-named “Nibiru” internally — in his blog on Thursday, proclaiming July 4 (the day the first one arrived) AOL’s Data Center Independence Day. If they work as planned, AOL will be able to deploy new services and infrastructure when and where needed with little more than an electrical outlet required.

The Nibiru project, he explains, is a set of “incredibly game-changing” goals for transforming the way AOL’s services division carries out the work of managing the company’s infrastructure, and the newly materialized mini data centers we’re high on the list:

Our primary “Nibiru” goal was to develop and deliver a data center environment without the need of a physical building. The environment needed to require as minimal amount of physical “touch” as possible and allow us the ultimate flexibility in terms of how we delivered capacity for our products and services. We called this effort the Micro Data Center. If you think about the amount of things that need to change to evolve to this type of strategy it’s a bit mind-boggling.

Among those changes, Manos writes, are capabilities such as being able to deploy infrastructure wherever it’s needed regardless of temperature and humidity, and the “ability to fit into the power envelope of a normal office building.” The units will also be part of AOL’s automated cloud computing infrastructure, which means they’re managed as part of a greater pool of resources without the need for dedicated staff.

But these mini data centers aren’t just about a cool operations project; they could end up paying big dividends for AOL’s business lines, as well. Not only can AOL save money by taking up less space and power within a traditional colocation facility — if it decides to place a Nibiru box in such a facility at all — but the box gives AOL the flexibility to move into new geographies with ease. Among the benefits Manos points to are:

  • It allows us an incredibly flexible platform for driving and addressing privacy laws, regulatory oversight, and other such concerns allowing us to respond rapidly.
  • Gives us the ability to drive Edge Computing delivery to potentially bypass CDNs for certain content.
  • Gives us the capability to drive ‘Community-in-a-box’ whereby we can quickly launch new products in markets, quickly expand existing footprints like Patch in a low cost, but still hyper-local platform, allow the Huffington Post a platform to rapidly partner and enter new markets with minimal cost turn ups.
Containers atop eBay’s Project Mercury data center in Phoenix.

AOL’s new boxes might be about the smallest data-center-in-a-box units around, but they’re actually part of a great move toward modular data centers across companies of all types. As I reported in April, eBay (s ebay) is buying custom-built containers full of thousands of servers that it can drop into (or on top of) its data centers as capacity dictates. IO Data Centers has built an entire business around modular data centers that can sit just about anywhere.

Update: AOL’s micro data centers were built by Elliptical Mobile Solutions, according to a spokesperson for that company. It has also built units, which it calls micr0-modular data centers, for NATO, the U.S. government and the Canadian Department of Defense.

All these efforts share the same goal of letting companies grow their server count when and where needed rather than trying to predict necessary capacity and relevant geographical locations years in advance.

9 Responses to “AOL building refrigerator-sized data centers”

  1. Jacob Rosenberg

    I’m not entirely certain what problem this is solving. If the goal is to build an edge CDN, the form factor is too large to get to the very edge of provider networks. If the goal is for international deployments, I’m not understanding how you’ll work out the network connectivity at reasonably cost. And, if the goal is to make Patch cheaper by putting these in every backyard in America, I already got the joke. What’s the business strategy here, exactly?

    • Jacob, How do you define the “very edge”? This form factor is small and light enough to get though door and go up elevators…let alone inside a cell tower bullpen. I have done it. The self contained nature allows a user to leverage existing footprint by adding capacity without build out. Fiber/connectivity can be accessed in many places with inexpensive rent when one does not have to worry about building a data center…

  2. Howard

    Why nibiru, as if i did not know…hide in plain sight…why did the pope call his billion dollar radio telescope Lucifer…like the nibiru data center…the truth is very close under a thin layer of distraction, Lucifer means morning star means Nibiru…we are not all asleep rothschild

  3. Joshua Goldbard

    So what’s inside the black box? With FB talking about using mobile CPUs for future datacenter work, I wonder what could be so mindblowing about this box.

    I don’t understand AOL at all. What does this have to do with getting me 1000 free hours of Internet Access?

    • Mike Manos

      Joshua – I guess the first thing you would need to do is re-fresh your idea of what AOL is. While it still derives revenue from the access stream, we have been solidly trying to turn around the company and reinvent it as a large scale content provider for the past few years. Think about our purchase and acquisition of Engadget, TechCrunch, Huffington Post, or our grass-roots hyper local business – Patch. There are lots of brands that you probably know that are part of the AOL umbrella, but didnt know were part of AOL. With regards to whats inside? Servers, network kit, storage. Nothing really mindblowing about the technologies – just that its wrapped in a smaller more agile unit specifically designed to lower total costs of deploying capacity and capabilities as a company.

  4. vijaygill

    The power and space math I would like to see. You can’t compete with retail power/space like the above model against wholesale bulk power/space deals for larger datacenters.

    • Mike Manos

      Vijay – We arent trying to solve the same problem as you guys at Microsoft or Google for that matter. At a unit level you guys will likely always win due to the sheer scale of each of your deployments. However – this construct allows us to deploy capacity to equipment yards. In many cases our partners would not charge us anything to drop a box in their equipment yard or if they charged anything it would be a nominal annualized cost. So our power rate would be higher but our lease rate would be nothing to a small amount. We are not talking unit costs, we are talking total costs. Remember I was the person who originally defined the large scale strategy and benefits at Microsoft. We are simply solving for a different problem. This model has more similarity to an Akamai global capability model than a mega-data center global data center strategy. One of the key learnings I have had is that the Data Center industry is not monolithic in its business types, cost scalers, and the like. Sometimes smaller is better. Plus a smaller scale allows you to take better advantage of green power technologies and options at a much more aggressive rate.

    • What kind of space are you talking about? Commodity space at 3-5KW per rack or high density space at 8-12KW per rack? I know for a fact at higher densities, Containerized models compete very well from a TCO, CapEx and OpEx standpoint. Lower upfront cost, lifecyle advantages by “right sizing” capacity, control by matching cooling/power solutions with IT packages and “facility cost” (metal shell warehouse at $70/sqft new)