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Make Mine Modular: The Rise of Prefab Data Centers

When John Campbell talks about Purdue University's soon-to-be implemented modular data center, he can hardly hide his enthusiasm.

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"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.

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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.

The Modular Approach: Pros and Cons

Pros

Deployment speed: Modular data centers can be deployed very quickly, usually within a matter of weeks, as opposed to the months or even years required to build a traditional data center.

Cost: Inexpensive materials and building techniques help control the costs of pod and prefab data centers. In some parts of the country, users might also enjoy tax and regulatory benefits. Hybrid customers -- those that use pods within traditional data centers -- could save money by sharing space with other data center users.

Placement: Pod and prefab units can be placed wherever the user chooses.

Scalability: More capacity in the form of new units can be added as needed.

Cons

Durability: The jury's still out on how well modular data centers will withstand the ravages of time and the weather.

Service availability: It can be difficult and expensive to provision utility and network resources to pods and prefab units in remote locations.

Tight quarters: Most modular units, particularly pods, are designed to accommodate equipment, not people.

Vendor lock-in: Users of modular data centers may have to commit to a particular vendor's hardware and/or support offerings.

Security: Isolated pod or prefab units might be easier to break into or vandalize than ordinary buildings.

- John Edwards

The popularity of modular data centers 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 building or expanding a conventional operations center. And 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.

Another advantage of modular data centers is that they allow users to start out small and expand as needed. "It starts to become more affordable for midsize companies that want more of a true data center room rather than just a small server room," Bailey says. "It's very different 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."

Modular offerings 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 prefab structures that are designed to provide more flexibility in both interior space and layout configuration. "It gets either partially or completely built in a factory and shipped to your site; then the building is completed on site," Bailey explains.

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

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. "It can be a convenience or a trap, depending on how you look at it," Lee says, noting that customers may find themselves gaining speed and convenience in the short term but losing IT flexibility in the future.

Next Page: Purdue, Cisco, and NASA...

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