Skanska USA Goes Modular, Eyes Colo Market

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A look at the cold aisle of an eComb modular data center deployed by Skanska USA, which is focusing on highly efficient modular designs (Source: Skanska).

The process of building a data center is undergoing a major shift, as customers yearn for facilities that can be cheaper to construct and faster to deploy. The emergence of modular designs is changing the game, including the role played by construction contractors.

One example of this trend is Skanska USA, the American arm of the huge European construction firm, which is deploying a new modular data center design that can deliver highly-efficient IT capacity in about four months.

Skanska will use its modular design to build data centers for customers, including a new facility it has created for in Canada for telecom company Telus. The modular design will serve as the nucleus for an ambitious plan for build a series of colocation facilities around the United States, which Skanska will own and operate.

Skanska’s move into colocation and wholesale space is the latest example of how the evolution of data center design is blurring boundaries and business models.

Supply Chain is “Collapsing”

“We think the supply chain is collapsing, and we have to decide how to optimize that,” said Terry Rennaker, Vice President of Skanska’s Mission Critical team. “We’ve got a contracting model, and it works well for us. We’ll continue to sell to enterprise users.

“We also see an opportunity in the colo business,” said Rennaker. “We are rolling out colo facilities, and our intent is to be operating the facility. We actually have a number of sites identified.”

The move reflects Skanska’s confidence in the modular design, which first generated chatter during the Data Center Pulse  open RFP competition to identify novel designs for a new eBay data center in Phoenix. Skanska’s entry, known as an eHive, was among the finalists in a field of 20 entries. While it didn’t win the job, the eHive earned praise from eBay data center director Dean Nelson, who called it “a very compelling ultra-dense product.”

The eHive is an enclosure that can be placed outdoors, and is optimized for high-density configuration of 40 kilowatts a rack and beyond. The eHive design, along with the larger eComb unit, were developed by Inertech, which is partnering with Skanska to market and build the modular facilities.

“We have a flexible form factor,” said Rennaker. “We don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. We sit down and solve for all of our clients.”

Factory-Built Components

Rennaker says Skanska’s approach is focused on outcomes, and the company will guarantee customers that their modular data centers will reach efficiency goals measured in Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE). For its project with Telus, Skanska has guaranteed a PUE a 1.15, and is meeting that goal, Rennaker said.

Most of the components for the Telus project are built in a factory in Green Bay, Wisconsin and then shipped to the Telus site in Rimouski, Quebec where the telco plans to deploy 32 megawatts of IT capacity. Skanska estimates that the modular approach will save Telus as much as $60 million in construction and operating costs.

Telus is using the eComb design, which adapts many of the eHive innovations to a larger structure featuring contained hot and cold aisles. The modules sit on a concrete slab, with a roof overhead. Each eComb includes a power room and a pump room to support the cooling system.

“We have a unique technology in the cooling system that is very reliable,” said Rennaker. The cooling system attaches to the rear of each rack, and circulates a refrigerant that removes heat. The refrigerant is pumped by a cooling distribution unit (CDU) with a heat exchanger that allows the system to use free cooling – tapping cool outside air to support the cooling system. Each CDU can support about 300 kilowatts of IT capacity.

Several other companies offer a rear-door heat exchanger, but use water rather than refrigerant. Rennaker says Skanska’s use of refrigerant allows it to support higher densities of up to 40 kilowatts per cabinet.

“Climate-Independent” Cooling

Skanska expects that this cooling system will work in any climate, expanding the geographic range in which clients can operate without chillers. “We wanted it to be climate independent,” said Rennaker. “We thought it was important that our clients can be efficient anywhere.”

Skanska is currently scouting sites in major markets to support its colocation ambitions, Rennaker said. One site is already under development in New Jersey, and others may be in primary data center markets such as Chicago, northern Virginia and Silicon Valley.

Skanska also may choose locations that allow it to offer on-site renewable energy. “We really are looking to do some unique things with close coupling of data centers and energy,” said Rennaker. That includes geothermal and solar solutions as well as energy storage technologies.

Rennaker said Skanska’s push into the colocation market won’t be disruptive to its existing business. “The DRTs and SAVVISes of the world have built their own anyway,” Rennaker said. The target client is enterprises seeking to cost-conscious CIOs.

“IT expenses have increased dramatically,” said Rennaker. “The CIO become a critical enabler of strategy and a controller of costs at the C-suite table. This means the end of religious convictions about how to build data centers, and a focus on costs.”

The exterior hall of the eComb data center design, with the doors on the left providing access to the hot and cold aisles (Photo: Skanska)

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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