Tuesday May 01, 2007

Project Blackbox Interview, the Jack of All Trades

Its been a while since I did an "interview" with someone tightly associated with the Project Blackbox team here at Sun Microsystems. The interviews are interesting, IMHO, since little details of the project come out that are often asked about, but don't escalate to the "formal" documentation for the project.

Russ makes his home inside one of our Project Blackbox containers in California (its a joke!).

He is one of the first people I started talking to on the project and remains one of the first people I go to if I need information on a particular detail of Project Blackbox...no detail is too small or too big to ask Russ.

Here is the result of the quick Q/A with Russ!

Russ, it seems like you live in a Project Blackbox shipping container in Menlo Park, what do you do on Project Blackbox that keeps you so close to one of our prototype units?

My role on Project Blackbox is Integration Engineering Manager.... that's a fancy way to say jack of all trades. I spend most of my time working with our supply line team, mechanical engineers, and build partners to ensure we will be ready to hit the ground running at RR. This involves spending quite a bit of time inside 20x8x8.5 transportable data centers that we call Project Blackbox.

You've seen all of the generations of the units (there are somewhere around 9 units now with 3 distinct generations), what is the most notable improvement or change between the generations (that is not super top secret...of course)?

Well, without handing down the secret decoder ring or making anyone take an oath of blood..... the biggest changes have really been evolutionary. The first prototypes were really proof-of-concepts - meaning can we really do this. In the second generation we put a lot of thought and engineering into Project Blackbox's subtle enhancements for RoHS, compliance, serviceability, and supportability. As we start to enter our third phase of development all I can say is more enhancements are on the way.

I have a picture of you talking to us in front of a big antennae doing testing. I've, personally, been surprised at how many details go into building a data center in a container (permits, grid configurations, etc...), what is the most interesting "detail" about this project that someone may not be aware of (that is not super top secret...again...of course)?

One of the most interesting facts is that all Project Blackboxes start off as actual live shipping containers from overseas that are re-purposed and turned into Project Blackboxes as part of Sun's ongoing ECO friendly efforts.

You just completed an exercise in connecting a Project Blackbox container in a super secret location to our own network making it, literally, a virtual expansion of our network into a container. I realize that "process" may vary from company to company, but engineering wise, how do I get my 7 or 8 racks of servers connected to my primary network so that my customers think they are talking to the data center?

It's actually much easier than you think. Simply connect Project Blackbox to your chosen network media, configure the internal networking (customer defined), and turn the users loose. Project Blackbox only needs three simple things to function - power, chilled water, and network connectivity. It's plug and play.

What is the most common question you get, and how do you answer it?

Why a 20 foot container and not a 40 or 53 foot? The reason is quite simple, 20 foot container is a better size for a building block approach. They are easier to transport by truck, ship, or even air. In fact, a fully loaded Project Blackbox can be lifted by a helicopter.

Finally, if Sun gave you a Project Blackbox container and the money to fully populate it, what equipment would you put into it (networking gear, CPUs, storage, etc...) and how would you use it?

This has to be a legal use - right ;-). I'd install six SunBlade 8000's and then fill the four remaining racks with X4500 Thumpers. This would provide a very high horsepower config with plenty of disk storage to support my personal computing habits.

Thanks Russ ... and no ... I don't want to know what those "personal computing habits" are :-)

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