It doesn't take a genius to realize that you could build an addition onto your data center by stuffing some equipment in a separate container. It just takes a genius to secure the intellectual property for it.
Google won a patent this week for "modular data centers with modular components that can implemented in numerous ways, including as a process, an apparatus, a system, a device, or a method." If it sounds like a simple idea, it's because Sun Microsystems, IBM and Rackable Systems, among others, have thought of it too. No big lawsuits have been launched yet, but it seems almost inevitable. This may be one of the first times the ownership of an entire approach to managing IT infrastructure has been granted to a single company.
There's still a chance, of course, that resourceful IT managers might be able to build their own data center in a box. After all, unless they start reselling what they build to another company, there's nothing stopping anyone from doing so, just as you can make your own greasy hamburger without paying royalties to McDonalds. But imagine if McDonalds actually owned a patent for hamburgers -- one that included not just the way you cook it but the notion of putting a piece of meat between two pieces of bun and some condiments. Suddenly the market for hamburgers looks a lot more limited in terms of choice.
I'm not suggesting Google is going to stop anyone from building server racks, but if it has control over the entire concept of a data center in a box, it may be more difficult for those selling the piece parts of such a solution to prospective customers. Google, of course, is primarily a software company and not a hardware vendor, but it may use its patent to help beef up a potential partner. Given its prior alliance you would assume Sun would be a natural choice, but if Google and Sun were really that close Google wouldn't have done an end-run like this.
Maybe Google's attempt to stake a claim on the data center in a box will force the rest of the industry to examine the original merits of the idea. At a time when everyone's struggling to fit everything they need for corporate computing into a predefined space (and to cool it), having the IT equivalent of a high school portable probably seems like a life-saver. In the long-run, though, companies are virtualizing their infrastructure and outsourcing or collocating various services in part to free up space.
There's nothing to suggest that pre-fab data centers are really more than a band-aid solution to a classic IT problem, and certainly few of the vendors offering something like it are bragging about their sales figures. That's the biggest, most intriguing mystery about Google's move. It has won the patent without first launching its own product. Leave it to a search engine firm to go after a result before many of us have even started searching.