Gartner: Modular Data Centers ‘Make Sense’

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Will data center containers ever be popular in the enterprise? That’s been a topic of debate since Sun Microsystems introduced its Blackbox container in 2006. Four years later, there are signs of growing traction for these factory-built facilities, now usually referred to as modular data centers. That shift was reflected in comments last week from a Gartner analyst at the company’s annual Data Center Conference.

“You’ll be hearing a lot about modular designs from vendors, and from Gartner,” said analyst David Cappuccio, who said the modular design approach “just makes sense.”

Gartner’s focus on modular data centers is significant, given the research firm’s wide following in enterprise IT. Cappuccio said the modular approach appealed to enterprise customers’ focus on timely deployment and incremental expansion, which allows companies to deploy capital gradually. Several data center executives noted that advice from Gartner frequently comes up in discussions with enterprise customers.

Strides for Modular Designs
Cappuccio’s comments come at the close of a year in which modular designs have made significant strides. 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 new designs from HP, Dell and new players like BladeRoom and NxGen have gone “beyond the box” with designs that look more like traditional data centers than shipping containers. The change in vocabulary, from “containers” to ” modular” may also be easing any stigma attached to early container concepts.

While noting the many benefits of modular solutions, Cappuccio also reviewed the reasons that enterprise customers have been wary of these new form factors. The initial products, which housed servers in ISO containers, functioned best as “lights out” facilities that were not particularly hospitable to staff. Also, regular maintenance meant opening and closing the containers, which disrupted the airflow and environment.

Lack of Reference Accounts an Issue
Another major problem has been the lack of reference accounts. “After four or five years of this, the question was whether anyone buys these,” said Cappuccio. “The poster child of customers was Microsoft, and vendors have been through about seven different designs trying to meet Microsoft’s needs.” The lack of publicly-identified customers is tied to the early adoption by two sets of secretive buyers: military and government users, and major cloud builders.

Cappuccio said enterprise customers may like the approach model offered by i/o Data Centers, whose i/o Anywhere product effectively brings a managed colocation center to the customer premise. “If you like colocation but you want to be close to your toys, you can do it,” he said.

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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8 Comments

  1. The Micro Modular Data Centers (MMDC) like those from Elliptical Mobile Solutions ( http://www.ellipticalmobilesolutions.com/ ) take the modularity down to a very granular level. It seems that the smaller you can make a modular system, the more density can be placed on the data center floor. Example: When you place an array of containers on a floor the “aisles” between them have to be 50’ (feet)wide, reducing the over density of the compute space. The aisle have to be this wide to accommodate moving them in and out of the floor area. MMDC “aisles” can be a little as 36” wide. Therefore from a overall density standpoint, a higher compute/storage capacity can be acheived in a given footprint using a very granular Micro Modular architecture approach.

  2. Ken B

    What's with the obnoxious Verizon ad and the grayed-out text? Are you trying to encourage readers, or drive them away? Please consider using less hostile advertising models. Thank you.

  3. I agree that there has been and will continue to be an uptick in customer interest in modular data centers. The key will be finding the right balance between "modular" and “containers." We’ve already seen some of the enterprise customers start backing away from containers because they are somewhat limited in size and application. Enterprise customers will find modules more effective in their data center as it still provides them a good balance between installing a cost effective infrastructure foundation and deploying their IT resources in a cost effective and energy efficient manner.

  4. Dennis Cronin

    Factory Built, Off Site Construction, Modular or Containerized, call it what you like but it is here to stay. Why you ask? Because it matches Capital expense with the need, they provide better quality control due to factory repetitive assembly, they absolutely provide better time to market, offer a predictable low PUE and numerous other benefits for the client. In years past you were limited to products produced by the computer manufacturers who used it as a means to sell more of their products but now there are over 10 computer manufacturer neutral independent vendors in the market to choose from and the products are vastly improved from earlier generations. For more information or questions join the "Containerized and Modular Data Center" discussion group on LinkedIn.

  5. We agree with David’s perspective that MDCs are showing signs of growing traction among enterprise customers. Here at SGI, we are seeing a significant increase in the amount of interest in modular data centers as customers try to balance the competing needs of space, power and time to increased capacity. A smaller initial footprint (four racks or so) with easy expandability seems of primary importance today, whereas in the past an ISO-based MDC was the common solution. SGI was one of the earliest players in the container data center sector with ICE Cube and, at Gartner’s annual Data Center Conference held earlier this month, SGI revealed ICE Cube Air, a significant addition to the line – and a major stride for MDCs in the industry. Rich took a detailed tour of this newest addition to SGI’s ICE Cube family and posted an in-depth video on its breakthrough benefits.

  6. I agree with the article that containers are on the rise. We currently offer the Datapod System. We really feel that the advantages offered by containerizing the data center should be approached with scalability in mind. Now, some will say that the inherent nature of containers is modular but, there are some serious limitations to a majority of the products currently on the market. Number one, you have to continue to add complete systems as you grow. If a customer wants to expand by only a few racks then the purchase of a new container is not economical. Number two, density. The current architecture doesn't allow for densities above 10-15kW per rack because of insufficient cooling. Number three, operationally inefficient, sometimes impossible. The vast majority of containers require a exterior structure over the MDC so that entry and egress can be accomplished in inclement weather. In fact, this is amplified in the HP Pod. It has approximately 12" of space in the back of the rack for IT personnel to work. In addition, this work can not be completed in rain, snow, high winds, etc. We believe that we truly have the ultimate Data Center in the Datapod System. All weaknesses that are present in the other designs are successfully eliminated with the Datapod System.

  7. Rich, your article mentions lack of reference accounts, even today this is still an issue. Many of our international customers have purchased a Datapod System because it offers a significant security derisk opportunity. For example, we recently factory acceptance tested a Datapod System, then shipped the unit to Europe for an onsite installation that lasted only three days. Quick onsite assembly means a modular data center can be deployed without the need for large numbers of employees on a high security site for extended periods of time. And as your article points out it makes it difficult to get reference customer.