Container Design: Busting Out of The Box

A look at a data center built by Colt using its new modular design.

Are data center containers busting out of their box? A growing number of vendors are introducing data center container products, as the concept appears to be gaining traction with end users in key sectors. As form factors evolve from standard shipping containers to more flexible modular designs, more companies are planning to build enterprise data center facilities based around containers.

Running servers in shipping containers has been viewed as a niche play by many in the data center industry, limited to mobile requirements, temporary capacity, or novel designs like the cloud  computing facilities being built by Microsoft and Google. But some data center design and construction firms are now rolling out designs that employ containers as building blocks for a cost-effective, energy efficient data center.

“It’s pre-engineered,” said Dennis Cronin, Senior Product Executive at Gilbane Construction, who gave a presentation on container-based facility design at last month’s 7×24 Exchange conference. “You’ve taken out many of the variables that are present in the data center. All the airflow is fixed. It’s repetitive. It’s all factory pre-assembled and tested, just like we do with our generators. You know the PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness, en efficiency metric) on containers. It’s hard to control quality when you build a data center, and containers can address this.”

Flurry of New ‘Container Centers’
Gilbane is developing a cube-shaped facility design built around containers. Other companies targeting this market include Dock-IT in the U.S. and Japan’s IIJ and Australia’s Green Edge Data, which have each recently announced plans for new container data centers.

The growing interest in containers dovetails with an intensifying focus on modular designs that can provide predictable, repeatable components for IT and power systems. Some say the benefits of modular design may be chipping away at the stigma some attached to containers.

Some companies are developing modular systems that are built in a factory, transported via container or truck, and then pieced together. This approach can dramatically shorten the construction process at the project site. “One of the advantages of going to a pre-engineered approach is speed to market,” said Cronin. “You’re talking three days to a week to get it up and running. The advantage to the end-user is significant.”

The speed factor was evident in last week’s announcement of a modular data center system developed by UK provider Colt, which says it can compress the data center procurement cycle to just four months, from order to delivery and installation.

Containers Get More Configurable
Last year Australia’s Datapod introduced configurable containers solutions that include specialized modules such as “entrypods” that serve as access control man-trap systems or “utilitypods” holding generators and fuel tanks.

Another example is BladeRoom, a UK company that says it can provide modular, pre-fab data centers with a PUE approaching 1.15. BladeRoom is among a growing list of vendors entering the container market. Emerson Network Power introduced a container in Europe recently, as has French IT conglomerate Bull, while PDI was showcasing its i-Con container product at the 7 x 24 conference.

That’s in addition to the incumbent data center container offerings from HP, IBM, SGI, IBM, Verari and perhaps even Oracle (which appears to be continuing Sun’s BlackBox program, but has not confirmed this publicly).

More Container Marketing to Come
As a growing army of vendors embrace containerized offerings, and users are likely to see more marketing messages seeking to establish a comfort level with modular designs. “This market is still developing,” said Cronin. “There are more than a dozen players. Those companies would not be in the business if there was not demand for this product.”

In the meantime, Microsoft will continue building data centers built around its IT-PAC, which showcases recent advances in container design. The entire container functions as an air handler, admitting fresh air through louvers in the side of the enclosure, which is chilled slightly and then passed through the IT equipment before exiting through the back of the container.

Microsoft’s new Generation 4 data centers will also use containerized power and cooling modules, extending the PAC (short for “pre-assembled component”) concept to the entire facility. It’s thinking beyond the “data center in a box” label applied to the earliest container offerings.

“The big difference is that we’ve modularized the entire data center,” said Dan Costello, Microsoft’s Director of Data Center Research. “In order to commoditize the data center, we need to think of it as a piece of equipment and not a building. For Microsoft, containers are small step in a much larger transformation.”

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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  1. Rhys Jones

    Colt does not operate soley in UK - Colt is a Pan-European Provider operating in 13 countries currently.

  2. Shame on us. Mr. Miller was not aware of one of the more innovative modular design products available: Silver Linings Rafts. More design flexibility, Lower PUEs due to a patented cooling system. Faster availability. Lower initial purchase price. Unlimited expandability. No better ROI.

  3. Bob L

    I'm looking for a building block of 10 to 30 enclosures with HVAC, fire suppression (gas or water or ?) electrical distribution built in with an option of also including the UPS for smaller installations. All factory built, factory certified. Like buying a car off a dealer lot. I spent some time going over Bladerooms web site. It appears to be what I've been looking for in a modular data center. I like the idea of designing around air side cooling with DX backup. A water based system would work also but that would add in the cost of chillers etc. I was unaware of SilverLinings.... so I went over to the web site and looked around. Not sure what they are trying to "fix" with that design? I'm guessing it is focused on cloud providers. Lots of compute power in small spaces. To my tastes the size is too compact. I'm more typical. I need RU's for whatever my customers toss to me. I need 5 to 10 KW per rack. I'm not looking for 30KW per rack. I just want to replace my purpose built (read expensive) DC's with modules I can put into a warehouse. Something that all I need to worry about is UPS and Generator.