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 not a good fit for everyone

While modular data centers present a variety of potential benefits, adopters also need to be aware of some hidden gotchas. Vendor lock-in is perhaps the biggest drawback. "You're very heavily reliant upon the providers ... to give you service," Bailey says. "So if you buy an HP container, you've really got to go to HP for the service on that."

Potential modular buyers also need to remember that innovations such as virtualization and cloud computing can be used alleviate the need for additional space, says Richard Fichera, a modular data center analyst for Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "People keep buying all this new stuff and packing it more densely into existing data centers," he observes. "I've known data centers that five years ago were out of capacity, but they keep re-engineering inside the existing structure and they keep stretching it out."

Modular crate
Modular data centers use techniques including preconfiguring a shipping container with server racks and other IT equipment for easy drop-off and deployment. Photo credit: Lee Celano / Reuters

Bailey notes that while modular facilities are meeting the needs of a growing number of enterprises, they still aren't a good match for some organizations. "If you're a company that has a fairly predictable understanding of what your growth is going to be regarding IT technology, and if you can fairly well forecast the amount of power you'll need to service that IT load, perhaps you should go with a more traditional approach to building a data center," she says.

Bailey says that careful planning and smart utilization practices can allow such organizations to reap long-term benefits from conventional data center facilities. An existing facility -- already bought and paid for -- may be able to be more densely populated, making it a better financial bet than adding a modular unit.

Paul Major, managing director of information technology at Aspen Skiing Co., which manages a ski resort in Aspen, Colo., explains why prefab wasn't in the cards for his new data center, due to open in May. In addition to the environmental enhancements over the old data center -- including an estimated 60% to 70% reduction in some cooling costs -- one of the largest benefits will be "getting all our IT people together in one place, for the first time." (To hear Major speak more about Aspen Skiing's new data center, watch the video below.)

Paul Major, managing director of information technology at Aspen Skiing Co., talks about his new data center at the recent Computerworld Premier 100 conference.

For his part, Campbell "strongly encourages" managers considering a modular data center acquisition to visit an operating facility before making a final commitment. "Take the time to visit, walk into them to see how they're cabled up and make sure it fits your environment," he says. "There are a number of [modular data centers] and many of them are very similar."

Obrien, meanwhile, advises managers to keep a close eye on the swiftly evolving modular market. "There's a lot of rapid innovation taking place," he says. "It's up to you to keep your antenna up and stay on top of all the latest developments."

- Additional reporting by Johanna Ambrosio

John Edwards is a technology writer in the Phoenix area. Contact him at

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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