Make Mine Modular

Prefab data centers have many benefits, but beware of vendor lock-in.

When John Campbell talks about Purdue University'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," says Campbell, associate vice president of academic technologies at the Indiana university.

Modular data center design relies on inexpensive building materials and efficient construction practices such as preconfiguring shipping containers with server racks and other IT equipment for easy drop-off and deployment.

For Guardian Life Insurance, it's a matter of reducing the company's data center footprint, says CIO Frank Wander. The New York-based insurer 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 IT Leaders conference.

"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."

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

"I like to say that the large, monolithic data center is dead," says IDC analyst Michelle Bailey. Within five years, the modular model will become "almost the default approach" to data center construction, she predicts.

"You would probably have to have a really good reason for wanting to build a very large, overprovisioned 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. The Modular Movement

Albert Lee, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates, agrees 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.

In recent years, IBM, Dell, HP, Oracle, Microsoft and Cisco, plus a gaggle of other companies 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. Bailey estimates that about 85 were sold last year, and she predicts that about 145 will be sold this year. Many of those customers are still in implementation mode, with only a handful of companies, primarily vendors, in full-fledged production.

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