Modular data centers: Weighing the pros and cons

A prefab approach to changing needs can help agencies quickly boost their IT capacity and save energy, but it's not for everyone.

modular data center

Modular data centers like this one can help cash-strapped agencies handle changing IT needs. (Photo by Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Caught in a perfect storm of cloud-first and data center consolidation initiatives colliding with budgetary restrictions, federal CIOs might be wondering how they will keep their IT infrastructures humming in the years ahead.

After all, demands for new services are not waning even as the overall number of data centers is declining. Cloud computing and shared services can help, but most agencies still need some physical capacity to support servers and storage systems — as long as they can do so economically.

Modular data centers offer a possible solution. In this approach, compact containers or pods that resemble industrial shipping containers typically include core IT infrastructure components such as power supplies, server racks and cooling systems — in other words, the nuts and bolts of a data center's internal equipment. Configurations vary, and the data centers can be either portable or stationary depending on the nature of the prefabricated components.

If an agency needs more computing power but doesn't have the space or budget to build a data center, it can plug in a module, add the servers and related technologies, and quickly bring the new capacity online.

Vendors typically promise that the units can be delivered and functioning within three months. If the agency eventually requires more capacity, it can plug in additional modules.

"These modules are engineered to minimize planning, installation, configuration and much of the other legwork required to get the infrastructure built," said Wolf Tombe, chief technology officer at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. His organization is evaluating the use of modules for its operations. "That could radically increase our ability to deliver services, and the theory is we could significantly reduce our costs because we are not spending a lot of time on engineering."

Even if federal IT managers don't anticipate needing additional capacity, modules could help them address other imperatives, such as reducing costs, bolstering disaster recovery strategies or conserving energy.

Why it matters

Modular data centers represent one piece of an overall effort to bring greater efficiency and cost savings to IT infrastructures. They are related to converged infrastructures and reference architectures, which represent a step up in sophistication with pretested combinations of servers, storage resources and networking fabrics. Together, modular data centers and converged IT solutions can compress the time required to expand computing capacity and allow IT departments to implement the latest performance- and efficiency-boosting innovations.

Although they might be a relative novelty for civilian agencies, modular data centers are not new to military operations, said Shawn McCarthy, a research director at IDC Government Insights. For years, the military has taken advantage of the pods' compactness, which makes them easy to transport and cool.

Weighing the options

Here are the steps to determining whether modular data centers should be part of your agency's IT strategy.

1. Understand the full financial picture. Look beyond the cost of the modules and determine whether any physical enclosure will be needed to house the unit. If so, site work, permits, and weather could all affect costs and timing.

2. Factor in security. Determine how to protect data from physical and cyber breaches. You might need separate modules for classified information, with extra security if appropriate.

3. Think outside the pod. Agencies can benefit when IT service providers combine their offerings with data center modules. "With the budget cuts and fiscal constraints that are occurring across the federal government, a data center could contract for affordable cloud-based service that runs on a pod infrastructure," said Wolf Tombe, chief technology officer at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "That would be the ideal approach, rather than me having to buy the pod."

In the civilian world, he added, IT managers target modular data centers for two main types of applications: when an agency needs a temporary expansion in capacity or when a newer data center is built with expansion in mind.

"The value of modular data centers is they come pre-assembled," Tombe said. "You connect the appropriate power and network couplings to the container, and you are good to go."

In the federal government, the modular components also dovetail with cloud-first policies. A module and a converged architecture, for example, could be an effective foundation for a private cloud.

"Many IT managers may see certain portions of their operations removed from the data center — for example, the email systems," McCarthy said. "For what's left, they could choose a pod."

Plug-in modularity could also alleviate some of the day-to-day installation and maintenance headaches IT departments face. Because the infrastructure components arrive as a prefabricated unit, the IT staff doesn't spend time specifying and procuring individual components and then assembling them into a working unit. That could enable CIOs to dedicate their technical experts to improving the agencies' operations rather than focusing on routine tasks, or they could even reduce their staffs.

Some federal IT managers are looking for other benefits. For example, with more than 300 data centers, the Department of Veterans Affairs has plenty of IT capacity. "We're not looking at the pod concept to expand our day-to-day operations," said Christopher Shorter, VA's executive director of enterprise operations. Instead, department officials began investigating modular data centers earlier this year to improve its continuity of operations in a disaster.

For example, if a hurricane hits VA's Bay Pines facility near Tampa, Fla., the contingency plan calls for the IT workload to temporarily move to VA facilities in unaffected areas. Shorter said the strategy is practical for short-term disruptions but creates challenges if the Florida data center stays down for an extended period.

"How long can that failover data center take up all of the load, and what's the cost?" Shorter said. "Does that mean I can't deploy any new projects for the next six months because we are just limping along in disaster mode? That may not be acceptable."

One possibility Shorter envisions is contracting for mobile data center capacity and having enough units arrive in Tampa to help keep the facility running indefinitely at near-normal capacity.

The hurdles

Despite their advantages, modular data centers do not work in all situations. For instance, part of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's charter is to support extensive high-performance computing. The lab has one module that outside organizations can use to tap into the lab's computing power for collaborative research projects.

But officials are not planning to install any additional pods in the immediate future because standard configurations have limited value for high-performance computing, which has rigorous power and cooling requirements, said Anna Maria Bailey, high-performance computing program facility manager at LLNL.

In addition, the lab's cost analyses showed no savings if the modules are installed in dedicated areas outside the data center.

"Even with a cube, it is not truly modular," she said. "We would still be required to do the site prep work. We would need the utilities brought over, there would still be trenching involved, and that actually represents quite a bit of the total cost. From a cost/benefit trade-off, traditional construction has actually proven to be more cost-effective for us than the modular approach."

Beyond the concerns about costs, some agencies also fear vendor lock-in. Committing to a particular vendor's modular solution could reduce choices in terms of the brands and models of internal components and in terms of who services them if something goes wrong. It could, in turn, mean that agencies cannot shop around for lower-cost maintenance and repair services.

In addition, CIOs should consider how well a module will work with existing resources. For example, data center infrastructure management applications provide a central console for monitoring a range of resources, including physical and virtual servers and cooling and power-distribution systems. If a modular solution comes with its own DCIM capabilities, it should support standard interfaces for sharing information with an agency's existing DCIM program or other systems management applications.

To avoid the challenge of managing modules separately rather than as part of the whole, agencies should ask for specifics about the modular units' openness.

Tombe, however, sounded a note of caution. "It's fine to say that you want a solution like this to be based on open standards, but I recommend actually listing the primary standards that are critical to you," he said. "What one person means by an open standard may vary greatly from what someone else means."

Finally, some federal IT officials are concerned about whether the solutions are ready for prime time. Since CBP officials began investigating modular data centers about two years ago, Tombe said they have found significant differences among them.

"Not all vendors are at the same level of maturity or have the same capability when it comes to these products, so agencies will really want to do their research," he said. "It's not uncommon to have people promise the moon and then not be able to deliver. That just comes down to having really good vendor management to [ensure] that both the government agency and the vendor can be assured of success."

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