Micro Data Centers – A New Approach to Deploying Compute Capacity

At SC’12 we showcased the Micro Data Center (MDC). A new concept that AOL designed in partnership with Penguin Computing. MDCs are small, self sufficient ‘Data Centers in a Box’ that just require external hookups for networking, power and water. There are two MDC flavors, one for outdoor use and one less ruggedized version for indoors. The outdoor MDC is housed in a 42U rack-size enclosure provided by Elliptical Mobile Solutions that is NEMA 3 rated and protects against fire, water, humidity and vandalism (the first MDC used in production survived ‘Sandy’ without a hitch). The indoor MDC is housed in a 37U rack-size enclosure from AST Modular and was designed for deployments in loosely controlled environments, as for example warehouse spaces. Each MDC contains high density servers and storage nodes from Penguin Computing’s Relion product line as well as PDU’s, switches, load balancers. The outdoor MDC is cooled by a direct expansion cooling module that is integrated with the enclosure, and has an option for using air-side economization. AOL first outdoor MDC that has been deployed in production is currently handling 30% of the traffic to AOL’s main site aol.com.

So why is this so exciting… ? Because moving away from the traditional datacenter deployment approach to a model were capacity can be deployed in small increments wherever it is needed allows for huge cost savings and more flexibility. For applications where the MDC approach is applicable AOL estimates over 90% cost savings. Beyond cost savings the new model also inherently enables the distribution of compute capacity so that natural disasters don’t incapacitate an entire operation. MDCs make it easier for providers that want to offer online services in countries where privacy laws require that data is kept in-country. MDCs can also reduce reliance on commercial content delivery networks as servers can be deployed in local vicinity to content consumers. Of course the MDC deployment model also has limitations. The MDC software architecture has to support self sufficiency of each MDC. Applications that depend on centralized services that need to be accessible with short latencies are obviously not a good fit. Neither are ‘Big Data’ applications or distributed applications that require a multitude of services with low latency.
While the upside potential is huge there is of course also a cost. That cost is mostly related to software. To enable the ‘self sufficiency’ of the services running in the MDC problems like database replication, configuration management and system dependencies need to be solved. ‘Cloudifying’ services my be one way to help address these issues. Overall MDCs are a promising approach to deploying data center capacity. MDCs could also be a good fit for small scale HPC deployments as HPC applications are by nature more self sufficient than large scale enterprise applications.

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