Eric Wilcox is vice president of engineering and operations, Hyperscale Solutions, Emerson Network Power.
In today’s rapidly changing IT environment, data centers must meet changing capacity demands efficiently – from both timing and financial standpoints. Prefabricated data centers are emerging as a solution to this challenge.
Although it has received considerable attention in recent months, prefabrication is more than just a buzzword or a trend – the process of prefabricating a data center is fundamentally changing traditional data center construction practices. Building a prefabricated data center requires a collaborative approach to design where the critical infrastructure systems are assembled and tested as a complete sub-system in a manufacturing and controlled environment and deployed to the installation site. The result is a state-of-the-art, tightly integrated facility that can be deployed faster and at a lower cost than a similar facility using traditional construction practices.
The economics of a prefabricated data center are attractive. While recent public examples of companies employing a prefabricated approach to a new build fall in the hyperscale category, i.e. Facebook and T-Systems, prefabrication is by no means a niche practice limited to that environment. It’s viable for new builds of all shapes and sizes and, under the right circumstances, the economics may even change the cost-benefit analysis of expanding an existing facility or choosing a new build; and prefabrication seems like a clear path.
Who wouldn’t want an integrated facility available faster and at a lower cost? If you’re still wondering if a prefabricated solution is right for you, here are some questions to consider:
- What is the value of rapid deployment? Any organization seeking to accelerate data center deployment will benefit from a prefabricated solution. In fact, the primary advantage of prefabricated data centers is faster deployment. The approach cuts months off the deployment timeline, allowing organizations to bring new capacity online 30 to 60 percent faster than traditional stick-builds. This has quantifiable financial benefits – both cost-saving and revenue-producing. Those benefits should be factored into the analysis when comparing the cost of a stick-build facility to a prefabricated solution.
- How does site selection affect design? Prefabrication by no means equals “cookie cutter” or “standardized.” Instead, data centers are custom designed to a site and have no limitations in terms of functionality or aesthetics. That said, site location does affect what should be included in the design and development. Because the prefabricated process is more collaborative than the traditional stick-build process, technology vendors are more involved in the development. As such, they can better match infrastructure systems to specific site characteristics, including climate conditions and energy availability. This is particularly important in regard to the thermal management system, as the site may present opportunities to use free cooling and other approaches that dramatically reduce data center energy costs.
- What compromises must be made to achieve rapid deployment? It’s counterintuitive, but don’t assume there have to be penalties associated with faster deployment. The quality and performance of prefabricated modules and facilities are exceeding what can be achieved through traditional construction practices, and the costs are often similar. In fact, when the value of faster deployment is factored in, the total cost of ownership of a prefabricated data center is likely to be lower than a similar stick-build facility. Off-site prefabrication occurs in specialized facilities using skilled craftsmen and established workflows to drive high quality and enable true technology integration. Simply put, these aren’t LEGO-like stacks of containerized IT. With prefabrication, architectural requirements and preferences and customized industrial design can make the finished facility as individualized as any business might prefer.
Efficiency won’t be compromised either. The collaborative process supports system level configuration and testing prior to on-site installation, streamlining commissioning and minimizing the potential for startup problems. When additional capacity is needed, new modules can be added with minimal engineering and without disrupting existing operations.
Unified infrastructure is an emerging category in the industry, and prefabricated data centers are a natural evolution in this space. We’ve seen this process work well in limited sizes and configurations over the past several years, and facility-scale, fully customizable data centers can benefit from the same approach.
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