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Data centers: Make mine modular

Be prepared for a tight squeeze, though; prefab units are not known for being spacious

By John Edwards
March 28, 2011 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - When John Campbell, associate vice president of academic technologies at Purdue University, talks about his school's soon-to-be implemented modular data center, he can hardly hide his enthusiasm. "From a business position, on keeping costs down [and] trying to get as efficient a solution as possible, this is a very, very viable solution," he says.

Campbell isn't alone in his admiration of modular data center design, which relies on inexpensive building materials and construction practices such as preconfiguring a shipping container with server racks and other IT equipment for easy drop-off and deployment.

For Guardian Life Insurance Company, it's a matter of reducing the firm's data center footprint, according to Frank Wander, senior vice president and CIO. The firm is reducing its six data centers down to two -- one it will own and one it will lease, Wander explained at the recent Computerworld Premier 100 conference.

Modular ups and downs

  • Deployment speed -- Modular data centers can be deployed very quickly, usually within a matter of weeks, as opposed to the months or even years typically required for traditional data center construction.
  • Cost -- Inexpensive building materials and techniques trim costs for pod and pre-fab adopters. Adopters in some jurisdictions may also see tax and regulatory benefits. Hybrid customers -- those that use pods within traditional data centers -- get savings by sharing facility space with other data centers.
  • Placement -- Pod and prefab units can be placed at any location the adopter specifies.
  • Scalability -- More space in the form of extra pods, prefabs or square footage can be added as needed.
  • Cons
  • Durability -- The jury's still out on how well pod and pre-fab modular data centers will withstand the ravages of time and weather.
  • Service availability -- Provisioning utility and network resources to pods and pre-fabs placed in remote locations can be difficult and expensive.
  • Lack of space to work in -- Most modular facilities, particularly pods, are designed to accommodate equipment, not people.
  • Vendor lock-in -- Many modular data center offerings require adopters to commit to a vendor's hardware and/or support offerings.
  • Security -- An isolated pod or pre-fab may be easier to break into or vandalize than an ordinary building.

"We'll have a pod and go down tremendously in terms of space," he said. "We haven't done it yet, but that's where we're heading," Wander said.

Confounding early skeptics, who often compared modular data center construction to that of mobile homes, interest in the technology is now growing to the extent that some observers feel that the modular model is destined to become the standard for virtually all future data center construction.

"I like to say that the large, monolithic data center is dead," declares Michelle Bailey, data center trends researcher for IDC in Framingham, Mass. Bailey feels that within five years the modular model will become "almost the default approach" to data center construction.

"You would probably have to have a really good reason for wanting to build a very large, over-provisioned data center," Bailey says, noting that enterprises are sometimes forced to build such facilities simply to meet local zoning requirements. Some cities and towns don't allow modular containers, requiring traditional structures instead.

Albert Lee, a senior analyst at Enterprise Management Associates, an IT analysis firm located in Boulder, Colo., also believes that the modular model is on a roll. "From the overall technology trending perspective, I think this is the right way to go and [is] the next generation of the data center," he says. He points to the growing number of modular providers as proof of the approach's growing popularity.

Over the past few years, IBM, Dell, HP and Oracle, as well as a gaggle of other players large and small, have worked hard to change the way enterprises view and create data centers.

That said, it's still very early going for modular data centers. IDC's Bailey estimates that around 85 were sold in 2010, and she predits that this year's sales will be in the neighborhood of 145. The customers interviewed for this article are still in implementation mode, with only a handful of companies, primarily vendors, in full-fledged production.

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