Skip to main content

Thinking ‘inside’ the Blackbox: Papadopolous brothers shake up computing

Thinking 'inside' the Blackbox: Papadopolous brothers shake up computing

About 10 a.m. on May 31 three loud warning beeps echoed off the sheet metal walls of the Jacobs School's cavernous seismic testing lab. Seconds later, UCSD engineers jolted a shake table that supported Sun Microsystems computer servers, storage, and networking equipment inside a 20-foot-long metal shipping container. Eight racks of computer hardware rocked and swayed for about a minute to the crazy rhythm of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Nothing broke. A system of springs and rubberized supports dissipated most of the seismic energy.

The container looked like millions being transported worldwide every day by truck, rail and cargo ship. Sun wants to use those modes of transportation to deliver what it calls project Blackbox, the world's first virtualized datacenter.

The datacenters are rapidly deployable shipping containers packed with state-of-the-art technology optimized for low energy consumption and high data processing performance.

That concept of a completely lights-out, self-contained data center, says Jacobs School alumnus and Sun Chief Technology Officer Greg Papadopolous, could lead to the industrial revolution of information technology, not to mention an exponential growth in the Internet.

"We're challenging all of the assumptions. Why do we have machine rooms? It's an outdated concept left over from the era when computers were operated manually," says Papadopolous, who himself toiled as a nightshift computer operator mounting tapes and booting machines as a student at UCSD in the late '70s.

The result could be a chief information officer's dream - a prefabricated data center delivered to the corporate doorstop ready to be deployed on a rooftop, parking lot, or garage. Loading, shipping and dropping the Blackbox on site means rough handling of computer systems, and so Sun turned to Jacobs School structural engineers to test the box on the nation's largest six-degreesof- freedom shake table. The Jacobs School routinely uses the $15 million test facility to create realistic seismic shakes on building and bridge components for the California Department of Transportation and other clients.

Enter brother and fellow Jacobs School alumnus, Phil Papadopolous. A research scientist at UCSD's San Diego Supercomputer Center , Phil is a world expert on fully automated grid computing. Jokes Greg: "Phil is usually pulling the plug on Sun supercomputers, this time we're both excited about the same project."

For his part, Phil enabled researchers worldwide to use tools and resources running on the Sun servers throughout the earthquake test."The outcome was much better than any of us expected," says Phil. "If an earthquake rocked your house this hard, you'd most likely have plumbing leaks, but not even the cooling-water pipes in the Blackbox leaked. It couldn't have performed any better."

Print Article