Data centers: Make mine modular

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

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Modular data center popularity is growing because the approach, promises to help almost any enterprise, regardless of size or industry sector, add IT space in less time and at a lower cost than by building or expanding a conventional operations hub. Additionally, unlike a traditional data center, a modular facility can be located almost anywhere -- next to an office building, on a spare piece of land, on a company parking lot or inside a warehouse -- as long as there's access to energy, water and network resources. "The two big things that people consider are reducing the cost and cutting the time to deployment," Lee says.

Prefab building
Like a prefab home, modular data centers rely on inexpensive building materials and construction practices. Photo credit: Nikola Solic / Reuters

Another advantage offered by modular data centers is that they allow adopters to start out small and add on extra space as they need it. "It starts to become more affordable for mid-size companies that want more of a true data center room rather than just a small server room," Bailey says. "It's very different again from having to build a traditional brick-and-mortar data center, where you're trying to figure out how much capacity you'll need for the next 20 years instead of just the next three years."

Three styles fit most

As Bailey explains, modular offerings now come in three basic styles. There's the original concept of a reconfigured shipping container (usually referred to as a "pod") that the vendor typically packs with IT gear and drops off at the customer's selected location.

Alternatively, some vendors have begun offering pre-fab structures that are designed to provide more flexibility in both interior space and layout configuration. "It's almost like the modular home market, where it gets built in a factory," Bailey says. "It gets either partially or completely built in a factory and shipped to your site; then the building is completed on site."

The third approach is a hybrid model that combines both modular and traditional features. Vendors lease quickly configurable and expandable modular spaces, located inside large office buildings or plant-style facilities, to customers.

As the modular data center market grows and matures, the concept is gradually shedding its "IT plan in a can" reputation. "It's evolving from the container to a pre-configured type of environment," Lee says.

Many modular vendors, particularly pod makers, market their offerings as all-in-one packages that include servers and related infrastructure equipment, as well as power, cooling and other resources. Such systems can give customers a complete solution from planning to rollout. "It can be a convenience or a trap, depending on how you look at it," Lee says, noting that customers may find themselves inadvertently trading speed, cost and convenience in the short term for future customization, configuration and support/service opportunities with other vendors.

A compelling case at Purdue University

Purdue's Campbell began exploring his modular options after it became apparent that the university's high-performance data center was in dire need of additional electrical power. The facility's seemingly unquenchable energy thirst -- including three large server clusters built within the past three years -- was threatening to drain away its co-tenants' power resources. "It's a 10-story building; we are in the basement of that building and we consume 85% of the power," Campbell says. The other occupants consist of multiple research projects from various departments within Purdue.

Purdue's John Campbell
Purdue University's move to data-center pods was prompted by a needed electrical upgrade in its primary data center, at least a two-year process. "We just didn't have time for the process to work its way through," says John Campbell, associate vice president of academic technologies at the university.

An electrical upgrade was vital, but Campbell couldn't wait for the required bureaucratic approvals. "Getting an electrical upgrade ... is a two- to three-year process," he says. "We just didn't have time for the process to work its way through and (also) meet our growing needs."

Campbell realized that he needed to do something fast, or the university's research projects would soon begin suffering. He and his staff examined and rejected several potential options. "We looked at other places on campus that might have space and power available, but couldn't find any," he explains. Colocation was also considered and eventually rejected due to logistical and cost concerns.

Running out of choices, Campbell and the team turned their attention to modular offerings. They immediately saw several benefits. Pod-based structures could be deployed quickly, located on land close to the main data center and used to reduce the pressure on existing resources while accommodating future growth.

Most importantly, the modular structures wouldn't have to be submitted for planning approval. "They are considered a piece of equipment, rather than a building/construction expense," Campbell says. "So we could quite literally take this off the shelf and, in two or four months, have it up and going."

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