Four Myths of the Container Data Center Market

Mark Thiele is executive VP of Data Center Tech at Switch, the operator of the SuperNAP data center in Las Vegas. Thiele blogs at SwitchScribe and at Data Center Pulse, where he is also president and founder. He can be found on Twitter at @mthiele10.

Mark Thiele, SwitchMARK THIELE

As our industry evolves, most enterprises will probably never need their own data center. Increasingly, it makes less sense to build one, especially considering the wide variety of colocation options, along with cloud providers building giant facilities that can be readily deployed without having to worry about massive investments in hardware.

Still, the marketing is aggressive for what many vendors are calling “modular data centers” that I would term PODs and containers. These vendors will ask you: “Why build a data center when you can buy a POD?”

PODS are different. PODS are often roughly the size of your typical semi-trailer. In my opinion, their best uses are in disaster areas, war zones and temporary situations. They are similar to how you employ a portable trailer for housing or on a construction site. A POD is better than a tent, but not suitable for long term mission critical work.
A POD may seem like a small mansion, but in reality it is a self-contained trailer. With that in mind, here are four myths about PODS that you need to be aware of when the sales people come calling.

Myth 1: Businesses don’t plan well and as a result should sacrifice the correct solution to buy PODs.

Reality: There are tradeoffs to be made for expediency and the consequences can be negative. If you aren’t planning well for your next data center, you will be prone to mis-steps no matter what options you select. This means you need to take a look at your planning process. There are experienced providers who would be willing to help you leverage their scale and work with you to create a road map for your future needs.

Myth 2: PODs are just like a small data center.

Reality: Modern data centers are modular  – that is to say, the IT equipment and supporting power and cooling can be deployed in “chunks.” PODS and Containers are not modular in the same way. You can modify a traditional modular data center by increasing the floor space and changing layout configurations, just like you can with a home. Pretty much all you can do with a POD is add another unit to make it a double-wide. You can’t share plumbing or air conditioning capacity. It’s not like a house that has a shared infrastructure. With a house, you can add a bedroom or a fireplace. You don’t have that capability with a POD. A POD or Container data center is not a modular data center and there are constraints in how you will be able to expand as needs grow.

Myth 3: Every company has the need and capability in their IT infrastructure to move applications from one part of the world to another or from one POD to another.

Reality: While some percentage of companies would like to be able to shift workloads from one area of the globe to another, the capability to do so is still extremely limited. Most companies just plain don’t have a serious need for moving active workloads. If they do move a workload it’s one or two applications, not an entire POD or data center. Also, as big data becomes an ever larger part of your IT load and further bottlenecks your network, high density environments in well protected locations will become even more essential.  PODS do not offer that because they are usually less protected nor can you achieve the density that traditional settings can provide.

Myth 4: IT infrastructure is homogeneous and can be scaled in large volume increments.

Reality: Most organizations -large and small – don’t operate on a single hardware architecture strategy. The few that do are companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and eBay. Even very large enterprises rarely have a single hardware platform that supports a big enough workload to justify buying an entire POD of servers every time you need more capacity. I estimate that over 95% of enterprise applications still fit into the legacy design category. These legacy apps are generally not easily shuttled around the world from POD to POD. Even if you could move apps, you’d need redundant and duplicate infrastructure in multiple locations because it is usually cost prohibitive.

Let’s Continue To Innovate

I’m all for pushing the envelope on data center design and efficiency, but not to the point where it affects a company’s ability to operate. There are a few people in the industry who are pushing PODs. Not surprisingly, most of them are the POD manufacturers, but there are also a few well known industry names who are also advocating for these pre-manufactured units. While I know and respect many of these folks, the majority of them aren’t running an organization that looks anything like 99% of the rest of the market. What works for them, in my view, won’t work for you and I.

Real Risks Associated with Thinking a POD is a Modular Data Center

A POD is a self-contained unit of capacity. In many configurations, each POD provides for its own UPS and cooling. In a large building with fifty (50) PODs, the entire load might be 15MVA of power and cooling, yet if the cooling or batteries in any one POD fail, that POD and its servers fail. There is no way to share the remaining 14.7 MVA of cooling to the failed POD.

There is virtually no stored CFM (Conditioned Air for Cooling) in a POD. In other words, when the HVAC dies, your servers cook. Even in a moderate density environment (300 Watts SF) the temperature can rise over 30 degrees in under a minute. In a high density environment with very limited stored CFM like a POD, the temperature rise could be more than double in that same minute. This high temp will likely negate any warranty on the gear and virtually ensure hardware and data integrity issues going forward. A POD is not a mission critical data center, it’s just that simple.

Benefits of a Shared Infrastructure in a Data Center

Because of the shared infrastructure in a large modular data center hall (which may have hundreds or thousands of cabinets in a shared space), the failure of any one device (UPS or HVAC) has little to no effect on the facility as a whole.  The enormous volume of stored CFM in a large hall can protect against even a complete failure of HVAC for several minutes with little effect on operations. Whether you’re in a colo or your own facility, having a larger space to manipulate and share greatly increases your ability to deal with change and emergencies.

In this modular data center environment, you are free to change HVAC units or replace batteries and increase or decrease availability Tiers as needed all in an active customer environment. In a typical POD, you’re unlikely to be able to change much of anything other than the racks and servers and you certainly won’t be able to make changes while running.

Look Before You Leap

So don’t let a fancy show and tell at a conference fool you into believing that somehow a small little space with some gear in it is a data center. Avoid the POD “trailer park” if you can. Instead, look to a combination of internal and partner resources to help you treat your data center capacity like the critical manufacturing resource that it is.

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  1. Darrin Thomason

    While I don't believe PODS are the answer to everyone's problems, they do have some promise in DCs that are in need of being retrofitted to accommodate more power or cooling. Sure you could use similar isolation patterns in a modular design, but the completely assembled POD model does appeal to organizations that have a significant investment in the real-estate, but building and maintaining a DC is not core to what they provide.

  2. Compeletely agree to what Mark is saying. It's becoming a Hype and the most important result of a Hype is normally that it falls into pieces after a while!!

  3. The term modular is very confused in the data center environment. There are modular deployments of the data center that are quickly becoming standard operating procedure. The POD is just a different type of architecture of the data center primarily being promoted by IO Data Centers. I am not an advocate or adversary of IO but it is a different approach that definitely has some merit. The devil is always in the details how pods are designed to ensure adequate redundancy. The use of the word pod is also very confusing. Are you dealing with a pod that is built by a server company like Dell, Microsoft, HP and a variety of others so ship their proprietary hardware or an third party manufacturer? There is always going to be an Enterprise demand for their own solutions that are located at the enterprise and not deemed suitable for a collocation outsource. In certain circumstances, a modular solution might be the right solution for short and long term requirements. The modular solution can easily achieve Tier 3 levels of redundancy but the customer must make sure they are dealing with an experienced team with a commitment to quality. In my opinion, to diminish the quality of a modular architecture as double wide or trailer park is to demean our industry and undermine the quality that certain modular companies are committed to deliver. Like everything in our industry, do you due diligence when reviewing any product.

  4. Nathan Peterson

    I don't really agree with this assessment. As someone who has worked on deploying POD's I see their benefits daily. To his points 1) A company's solution could be to deploy pod's as a more manageable cost effective solution to maintaining empty unused / under utilized datacenter space. 2) POD's are Mini datacenters. You would deploy them in the same fashion one would deploy a brick and mortar datacenter, build out additional space to add more capacity or consolidate loads to be more efficient. 3) Your view of how POD's are deployed and utilized appears skewed. You assume they are deployed in a fashion where you have a giant extension cable and plug it in, but in reality there is a lot of infrastructure that goes into supporting each POD, and that takes time to deploy. In situations where workloads need to be shifted, I would assume a company would do their due diligence and build a system that could be shifted without the need of physically moving servers. That said there are situations where they need to be rolled out and deployed, just like mobile satellite vans used for TV broadcasting. 4) Every POD I have work in so far has deployed industry standard 19" Racks. How you populate and use the POD is up to the customer. Even the pre-populated designs I have seen use industry standard racks and power systems. I think the use of modular DC's and POD's is an innovative beyond the traditional DC's we have today. I believe many of the Myths and Cons listed are really a narrow view of how they are configured and used. I do agree though that customers must look before they leap and really see if these configurations will truly fit with the current and future needs and goals.

  5. Bill Moore

    I don't think so. Microsoft just built an entire datacenter using Dell Pods in Longmont Colorado. It runs their entire Bing Maps operation. Being a co-lo business, I'm not surprised that you don't like modular systems like this, but, it's the future of big company datacenters.

  6. Jake

    I used to work in a company which manufactures 'POD data center', which we called it 'containerized data center'. I totally agree with what is said in this article; many customers virtually have no idea what kind of data center they need and are fooled to buy these PODs. PODs are actually most suitable for temporary scenarios like sports conferences or disasters, not for permanent uses.

  7. Georgi Todorov

    Good article, but it sounds more like a wish of a big cloud corp. Sounds to me like Mark Thiele just describes what the cloud industry wants. But the reality is different! Myth1, Myth 2, Myth 3 and Myth 4 are all not true. Those are more like wishful thinking. Not at all! A pod can be more resilient, energy efficient and portable. Here are some facts for you to give some thought of. What's after the cloud? Here it is: 1. The monolithic data center is dead—modular data center construction is the future. 2. eBay Deploys World's Largest Modular Data Center. eBay and Hewlett Packard Enterprise partnered up to build a resilient, cost-effective, environmentally-friendly infrastructure to handle their extensive e-trade—the HPE EcoPOD. In September 2013, Ebay announced that they were "deploying the world’s largest modular data center, with 44 rack positions and 1.4Megawatts of power" using HP EcoPODs. 3. There are more companies that follow. Do your own research.