Make Mine Modular

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

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Campbell ordered a pod from Hewlett-Packard with the idea that additional structures could be added as the need arose. The modular facility will be an adjunct to the main data center.

The approach also turned out to be significantly less expensive than any of the other options Campbell and his staff considered. "It was about half the cost of what we would pay for co-lo space," he says. There were other benefits, too. "It's extremely energy-efficient, compared to our older data center," he says. "It's more flexible . . . we can build and add as we need the growth."

The Purdue pod holds one research cluster, as will any new pods that are added later. One drawback is that the pods don't have a lot of space for people to work in. "There's plenty of room to work in the front, but it's tighter in the back," says Campbell. "You really want [to use pods] for something that you don't plan on accessing all the time."

Another challenge, Campbell says, was getting staffers accustomed to working in a facility located in an external structure. "The service support staff was already familiar with accessing anything and fixing anything in a remote way, but it seemed a lot easier when the data center was still down the hall," he says. "This [new data center] is down the street, and while they've been using all the remote stuff for years, it's made things a little bit different when an onsite visit is needed."

Supporting the Final Frontier?

Raymond O'Brien, chief technology officer for IT at NASA's Ames Research Center, is exploring the feasibility of modular data centers and is trying out a pod from Cirrascale, a Poway, Calif.-based provider of cloud-based systems and modular data centers. He plans to see if data center pods could help NASA better manage its voracious computing appetite.

"Growth estimates and other factors showed we could be on a course to exhaust available data center capacity at Ames Research Center and possibly some other NASA centers," he says. "We decided to acquire a containerized data center to better understand if this alternative would be a good way to address our planned growth."

NASA juggles scores of research projects, each with its own computing needs -- an operating model that seems almost ideal for the use of modular facilities. Being able to quickly and easily add computing and storage resources without having to deal with space constraints in existing data centers is very appealing, O'Brien says.

While he hasn't yet reached a final conclusion on the modular option, O'Brien says NASA has already learned an important lesson: Pay attention to cable management.

"There isn't much room inside containers," O'Brien says. "The server equipment is very densely packed, so having a good cable management approach will ensure [that] your technical support team can move around inside and easily identify the cabling associated with server and network resources requiring attention or maintenance."

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

Users considering modular systems should also remember that there are other ways to add data center capacity without building new facilities, says Forrester Research analyst Richard Fichera, noting that two such options are virtualization and cloud computing. "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."

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