Mobile data centers becoming 'mainstream'

As more vendors join portable datacenter market, customers will increasingly view these facilities as "mainstream" and "permanent" business option, analyst notes.

The portable datacenter market has matured in recent times and now offers a broader range of vendor services, according to an analyst, who adds that customers are also now accepting the technology as mainstream.

In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, Steve Wallage, managing director of BroadGroup Consulting, noted that the market now views portable data center facilities as a viable "permanent" business option, rather than a temporary alternative.

One of the early vendors in this space was Sun Microsystems, which unveiled the Project Blackbox in 2007, a year after it was first announced. The vendor, which is now part of Oracle, did not respond to request for comments.

Similar offerings from players such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard, have since sprung up, Wallage observed.

Mobile data centers, he noted, offer advantages such as lower capital costs, faster time-to-market, flexibility and ease of use. They have caught on in markets where there is no existing large datacenter infrastructure or facility providers, he added.

"Particular verticals have included those with sudden or unexpected [network] demand, such as oil and gas and media or Internet companies, and those looking to minimize capital outlays, which in the credit crunch has included increasing numbers of [corporate entities]," said Wallage.

Alex Tay, service product line executive at IBM Asia-Pacific, noted a growing interest and adoption in the use of "containerized solutions" such as its Portable Modular Data Center (PMDC).

"Clients tend to 'look and see' because new and innovative ideas like PMDC were not tested [previously]," Tay said in an e-mail. "When more clients took up such containerize solutions, it gave them a lot more confidence to evaluate such solutions."

Demand for containerized solutions, according to the IBM executive, comes from "hostile" environments where power and cooling are not easily obtainable, such as mining and oil and gas industries. The PMDC can also be used to supplement existing data centers, where the client has run out of space for equipment.

Thomas Johnson, CEO of Internet and telecommunications infrastructure provider Dot VN, painted a bullish outlook for mobile data centers. In an e-mail interview, he said growing problems faced by data centers, as well as the rising demand for data centers globally from small and midsize companies, place portable setups at a vantage position.

"[We] believe that as data demands grow and computing power increases, datacenter infrastructure will have to become more energy-efficient, otherwise rising energy costs will make even the smallest data center a losing economic proposition," Johnson pointed out. "Datacenter infrastructure can no longer afford to be wasteful and so we expect that adoption will occur because it must occur."

San Diego, Calif.-based Dot VN and Chandler, Ariz.-based Elliptical Mobile Solutions (EMS) recently announced a partnership to sell mobile data centers in Vietnam and Asia. The pair this week unveiled the facilities in Vietnam's capital, Hanoi.

Market player bets on price, scalability
Within Asia, Dot VN is targeting the EMS mobile data center at financial institutions, Internet service providers, telcos, Web hosting companies as well as government agencies. According to Johnson, the company expects a "strong positive response" from the region.

Vietnam, he added, represented "a perfect initial market" as it exhibits rapid growth and a strong appetite for technology, but at the same time struggles with infrastructure challenges. "A perfect example of this growth is evidenced by the explosive growth of domain names in Vietnam," he said.

"In 2003, there were less than 5,500 registered domain names in Vietnam. Thanks to the efforts of organizations like the Vietnam Internet Network Information Center, by the end of 2009 there were over 100,000 representing over 1,800 percent growth," he explained. "This kind of growth can only be sustained if the right infrastructure is there to support it."

Johnson acknowledged the presence of industry leaders such as Sun, HP and Microsoft, but maintained that offerings from its rivals "are still priced out of the market" when it comes to unit and transportation costs. "This is especially true for emerging markets such as Vietnam," he said.

He added that the scalability of the EMS offerings will be a competitive differentiator. "Clients can't afford to [invest] US$500,000 to US$1 million if their business requirement only demands an additional rack or two," he said.

Portable DCs remain niche
Despite the growing popularity, mobile data center options are not likely to replace traditional sites.

IBM's Tay pointed out that while portable data centers offer benefits such as mobility and quick build-outs, they sometimes face limited network connectivity at the deployment site and higher security considerations, and have a limited floor area. He added that IBM's PDMC market at the moment remains "niche".

Wallage concurred. While they are deemed viable mainstream business alternatives, he noted that demand for mobile facilities would remain niche as large traditional data centers boast advantages such as economies of scale, lower total cost of ownership and ability to manage.

In addition, the traditional data center is also evolving to include some advantages of mobile facilities, said Wallage, pointing to HP and APC, as vendors that have such initiatives.