The Modular Data Center Gets Some Traction

A CENTRAL ROLE FOR THE next—generation data center will be to allow organizations to quickly add capacity and performance as needed. One answer that’s getting increasing attention is prefabricated, modular data centers.

It’s not a new approach, and it’s not one that is a big part of the data center trend — at least not yet. But it provides a ready-made option to the alternative, which is to design a one—size—fits—all approach that could result in higher costs and less energy efficiency and flexibility.

In addition, said Simon Campbell—Whyte, executive director of the Data Centre Alliance, “a data center infrastructure can meet its optimum performance only when fully utilized, so a modular approach makes sense in data center planning if a scalable data center is a requirement.”

Facebook, for example, is on a global expansion binge and using the modular approach in at least some cases to quickly add data center capacity. It will be using some 250 prefabricated modular systems for power, air and water treatment to quickly construct a second, 125,000-square-foot facility next to its first Swedish data center, which went online in June 2013.

NASA was one of the first government agencies to use modular data centers, incorporating them into its Nebula cloud computing platform. Shipping containers were sent to NASA’s Ames Research Center, each holding up to 15,000 compute cores and about 15 petabytes of storage. They cut the planning cycle for the Nebula platform down to 120 days from the two years it would have taken if the data center had been built the traditional way.

The Army is also using containerized data centers for its Area Processing Centers Army Private Cloud initiative. To comply with the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative, the Army intends to close 185 of its permanent data centers by the end of 2015 and has no plans to build more. The mobile containerized data centers will help meet any demand for new data center capacity.

The containerized data center is a small subset of this segment of modular data center design. More typical is having prefabricated elements of the data center shipped to already-built facilities on skids, as with the Facebook example.

The arguments for modular data centers can be persuasive. The cost of shipping the various preassembled elements can be much lower than shipping individual components and then assembling them on site, depending on the location of the data center. It can also be much faster, and therefore cheaper, to commission a modular data center.

Likewise, more efficient use of space, built-in advanced cooling systems, the use of integrated data center—in—frastructure management software and a much easier decommissioning process all play a part in making modular data centers much more likely to have a lower overall total cost of ownership compared to traditional data centers.

There are potential downsides. Replacing separate components in a traditional data center is relatively simple and cheap compared to replacing an entire modular element. There could also be hidden shipping costs in the form of modular elements lost or damaged in transit.

But the potential upside is considerable. At some point, organizations could build their own data centers by simply ordering mix-and-match modular elements from different manufacturers, much the way you can build a PC today. Some of that Lego-like ability exists today, though usually from single vendors using their own components.

Given all of the positives, 451 Research sees the prefabricated modular data center category moving toward critical mass. It predicts it will reach center stage sometime after 2015.