DCK Guide To Modular Data Centers: Why Modular?

Why choose a modular design? In part two of our DCK Guide to Modular Data Centers, we examine the rationales and benefits of the modular approach, and how the sector has evolved to move beyond first-generation containers.

John Rath

October 20, 2011

4 Min Read
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In the first installment of our Guide to Modular Data Centers, we defined modularity as an approach to data center design that implies either a prefabricated data center module or a deployment method for delivering data center infrastructure in a modular, quick and flexible method.

Why Modular?

The initial challenge for containers and the modular concept was its association with mobility. The Sun Blackbox was seen on oil rigs, war zones and places a data center is typically not found.  As an industry of large brick and mortar facilities that went to extremes to protect the IT within, the notion of a data center in a box was not only unattractive, but not seen as a viable solution.  However, the Blackbox and other early containerized offerings started a conversation around how data centers could benefit from a new level of standardizing components and delivering IT in a modular fashion around innovative ideas.

Faced with economic downturn and credit crunches, business took to modular approaches as a way to get funding approved in smaller amounts and reduce the financial of building a data center.  Two of the biggest challenges with data centers are capital and speed of deployment. The traditional brick and mortar data center takes a lot of money and time to build.

Outside of those two primary drivers, there are many benefits and reasons listed for why a modular data center approach is selected.

  • Speed of deployment:  Modular solutions have incredibly quick time frames from order to deployment.  As a standardized solution, modules can be ordered, manufactured, customized and delivered to the data center site in a matter of months (or less). Having a module manufactured also means that the site construction can progress in parallel, instead of a linear, track toward completion.

  • Scalability:  With a repeatable, standardized design, it is easy to match demand and scale infrastructure quickly.  The only limitations on scale for a modular data center are the supporting infrastructure at the data center site, and the available land. Another characteristic of modular scalability is that modules that can be easily replaced when obsolete or if updated technology is needed.

  • Efficiency:  Modules are engineered products with tightly-integrated internal subsystems, which results in efficiency gains in power and cooling in the module.  First generation and pure IT modules will most likely not have efficiency gains other than those enjoyed from a similar containment solution inside of a traditional data center. Having a modular power plant in close proximity to the IT it serves will save money in costly distribution gear and power loss. There are opportunities to use energy management platforms within modules as well, with all subsystems being engineered as a whole.

  • Deferred Capital Cost:  As a large capital expense, building a data center is typically a project that requires substantial money up-front to anticipate forecasted IT needs for the next 10 to 15 years.  Rapidly changing technology in the data center makes it difficult to justify such a large capital expense for a building that must keep pace with technology demands.  Modular solutions can be seen as a way to intelligently apply capital to the data center in line with changing technology and IT requirements. Instead of a $50 million project day one, ten $5 million modules can be built as they are needed.  It enables the ability to incrementally add capacity to the data center.

  • Commissioning:  As an engineered, standardized solution, the data center module can be commissioned where it is built and require fewer steps once placed at the data center site.

  • Density and PUE:  Density in a traditional data center is typically 100 watts per square foot.  In a modular solution, the space is used efficiently, and allows precise airflow management that can support densities of 20 kilowatts per cabinet and higher.  The PUE can be determined at commissioning and because the module is pre-engineered and standardized the PUE’s can be as low as 1.1 to 1.4.

  • DCIM (Data Center Infrastructure Management):  Management of the module and components is where a modular approach can take advantage of the engineering and integration that is built into the product.  Many, if not all of the modular products on the market will have DCIM or management software included that gives the operator visibility into every aspect of the IT equipment, infrastructure, environmental conditions and security of the module.

  • Rightsizing:  Modular design ultimately enables an optimized delivery approach for matching IT needs.  This ability to right-size infrastructure as IT needs grow enables enterprise alignment with IT and data center strategies. The module or container can also provide capacity when needed quickly for projects or temporary capacity adjustments

The entire Guide to Modular Data Centers white paper can be downloaded here, courtesy of IO.

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