Malcom McLean, Honorary Sun Fellow

By now I’m sure you’ve seen the news about Project Blackbox. I’ve been on the project for the last 6 months, and its one of the most exciting things I can remember. Rarely do you get to work on something that has the potential to change 50 years of standard practice. Ever since we started making computers we’ve had computer centers and then data centers, specialized rooms colocated with office employees. As others have now documented, this idea makes less and less sense as time has passed.

Do we have the perfect answer to this? Probably not yet, but the reason we decided to pre-announce this (it won’t be in full production until next summer, though we will be working “hands-on” with customers soon) was to get the dialogue started so that when we ship the productized version (or, more likely, versions), we’ll hit the mark for more real world situations.

While there’s an incredible amount of innovation that’s gone into the design, it’s important to understand how critical the standard shipping container is to this concept. The shipping container we know and love today was invented in the 1950’s by a man from N. Carolina named Malcom McLean. The first ship, named_Ideal-X_, was a converted WWII transport vessel which sailed from the port of New Jersey to Houston.

There’s two things which link this work to today’s announcements. First is the economic discontinuity caused by the idea. Prior to the standard container it cost $5.86 per ton to load a ship. Afterwards the cost dropped to $0.16 per ton! This caused the head of the Longshoreman’s union to say “I’d like to sink that s.o.b.” at that launch of the Ideal-X.

I believe that over the next few years we’ll see that the Blackbox concept will have as dramatic of an economic effect as Malcom’s idea 50 years ago. People’s way of thinking will dramatically shift - I’ve seen it in my customer visits so far - and they won’t be able to think about datacenters the old way ever again.

The other bridge to the past wasn’t about the container itself, but about what Malcom did next. In 1956, Malcom patented his container design. But instead of holding onto them and trying to sue anyone who copied the idea, he submitted the design to ISO and gave them a royalty free license. Today we’d call that englightened, back then it was just plain crazy, but it worked…today’s there’s over 18 million shipping containers in use worldwide. But Malcom must have known that challenges of having to compete in open market was well worth the trouble if the open standards made that market huge.

Malcom, for that I’m bestowing you with the posthumous title of Honorary Sun Fellow. Well done!

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