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Vroom: Cloud on wheels

The flexibility of cloud computing services appears to be extending to the physical infrastructure itself.

Researchers point to new examples of the rapidly maturing “shipping container data center” as proof. After all, if you can sign up and get a server at Amazon Web Services anytime you like, why shouldn’t you be able to order up a physical data center almost the same way?

Rob Gillen, a researcher at the Oak Ridge National laboratories in Tennessee, is part of a team researching and building a private cloud out of commodity x86 servers to support the operations of Jaguar, ORNL’s supercomputer. It is the fastest and most powerful system in the world right now, but it’s not exactly a good fit for day-to-day computing needs.

“If you look at our Jaguar server here with 225,000 cores, frankly there’s only a few people in the world smart enough to write code that will work really well on that,” said Rob Gillen, researcher for cloud computing technologies at ORNL. Gillen is working on both the overall goal of private cloud and is heavily involved in exploring the use of Microsoft Azure, the Platform as a Service.

He said ORNL is working to develop a self-service, fully virtualized environment to handle less important or less intensive tasks, like post-processing of results from workloads run on Jaguar, and long term storage and delivery of that data.

Gillen said the advantages of using standard, widely available hardware and virtualization technologies to make a pool of resources available, a la Amazon Web Services, was very simple. There was a clear divide in raw computing power, but the pool of available programmers, not to mention existing software tools, was much wider using commodity-type services.

“If you have the opportunity to use fixed, Infiniband gear, generally your scientific problems are going to express themselves better over that,” he said. “The commodity nature[of private clouds] is tough for scientists to grapple with, but the range of solutions gets better.”

Hadoop, the massive multi-parallel next generation database, might do a much better job of processing data from Jaguar, for example, and a researcher wouldn’t need to tie up critically valuable supercomputer time noodling around with different ways to explore all that data.

“The raw generation is done on the supercomputers but much of the post processing is really done on commodity, cloud environment,” said Gillen. But, he’s chronically short of space and wants more servers for the ORNL cloud.

That’s where cloud on wheels comes in; Gillen has been looking at a demo container data center from SGI, called the ICE Cube, which is a standard shipping container with a lot of servers in it.

Gillen’s photos and a video of the interior of the unit are a treat for the gearheads:

Rear view
Interior racks
Video taken inside

It gets put down anywhere there’s space and half a megawatt or so of power. Just add water and presto, instant data center. It might not be pretty, but it’s a less expensive way to get data center space.

“We’re space constrained and that’s one possibility,” said Gillen.

Gillen said that the containerized data center market was pretty well established by now, but offerings from HP and IBM were usually designed to adapt to a traditional data center management process. They had standard power hookup, standard rack equipment, and put a high degree of emphasis on customer access. “Some vendors like HP or IBM really want it to fit into the traditional data center so they optimize them for that.”

SGI’s demo box is a little different. It’s built to do nothing but pack as many commodity x86 servers inside as possible, with unique cooling and rack designs that include DC bus bars connecting directly to server boards (no individual power supplies) and refrigeration ducts that run the length of each rack (no CPU coolers).

Gillen said that means it’s ideally suited for getting a medium-sized private cloud (anywhere from 15,000 to 45,000 cores) in a hurry. He also noted that containerized data centers are available in a wide variety of specialized configurations already.

“We are looking at it specifically in the context of our cloud computing projects but over the last two days a lot of people from other areas have been walking through it,” he said.

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