What Is a Modular Data Center? A DCK Guide

The concept of a modular data center solution has eluded definition, if not comprehension. Through the short history of modular solutions and vendor marketing, a definition and categorization of solutions has emerged.

Kevin Normandeau

April 4, 2013

3 Min Read
A long view of the IT equipment loaded in the IO.Anywhere prefabricated modular unit on display at the Uptime Symposium 2012, held this week in Silicon Valley.

Data centers of the future are letting go of long-held traditions for design — with modular products and providers ushering in a new era. A modular data center is an approach to data center design that incorporates the use of a factory-built module or a method for delivering data center infrastructure in a modular fashion.

Modular solutions take the best ideas for design, reliability, and efficiency and package them into a prefabricated, repeatable, and operationally optimized module.

The modular market started with an international standard approach in the shape of an ISO (International Standards Organization) shipping container and has evolved to a fledgling market of vendors that produce everything from containers to a variety of modular designed products and solutions for IT, power and cooling.

In some ways, the shift in IT such as cloud computing has been in parallel with modular data center approaches.

Data Center Containers vs. Modular Data Centers

Often, there is confusion between "data center containers" and "modular data center" terms.

A data center container is a particular package that is engineered and delivered as such — in an ISO shipping container. A modular data center, on the other hand, references a deployment method and engineered solution for assembling a data center out of modular components in, many times, prefabricated solutions that enable scalability and a rapid delivery schedule.

While a container is not the same thing as a modular data center, a container can be a part of a modular data center.

Data Center Container

A data center product incorporating customized infrastructure to support power or cooling infrastructure, or racks of IT equipment. Containers are built using an ISO (International Standards Organization) intermodal shipping container.

Modular Data Center

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.

Types of Modular Solutions Available

To build on terminology that has grown around container and modular, Jason Schafer from The 451 Group categorized the types of modular solutions available:

  1. Container

  2. Modular Components

  3. Modular Providers

  4. Phased Approach

Of the four categories, only three meet the definition for modular. The fourth type, a phased approach, may be conceived of as modular in that it is built-out gradually, but is not truly modular.

Modular 1.0

A number of innovations marked the beginnings of the modular products and ideas:

  • Google experimented with a container full of IT, parked in an underground parking garage.  They even went so far as to propose a floating data center on cargo ships.

  • In 2006 Sun Microsystems unveiled project Blackbox, an energy-efficient, water-cooled turnkey data center housed in a shipping container.

  • In 2008 Microsoft announced that its new Chicago data center would house up to 220 shipping containers.

After the early development of containers, theories evolved and the hype cycle played out for a data center in a box. Numerous hardware vendors, independent companies and data center providers embraced the modular concept and presented their own engineered solution.

Additional Modular Data Center Resources

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