Why Consider a Modular Data Center? A DCK Guide

In addition to capital and speed of deployment, there are many reasons for considering a modular data center approach.

Bill Kleyman

April 9, 2013

8 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.

The initial black eye for containers and the modular concept was 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 all extremes to protect the IT within, the notion of this data center in a box being mobile was not only unattractive, but laughable as a viable solution. What it did do however, was start a conversation around how the very idea of a data center could benefit from a new level of standardizing components and delivering IT in a modular fashion around innovative ideas.

Faced with economic down-turn and credit crunches, business took to modular approaches as a way to get funding approved in smaller amounts and mitigate the implied risk of building a data center. Two of the biggest reasons typically listed for the problem 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. Furthermore, the quick evolution of supporting technologies further entices organizations to work with fast and scalable modular designs. 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 timeframes from order to deployment. As a standardized solution it is manufactured and able to be ordered, 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, dependent transition. Remember, this isn’t a container — rather a customizable solution capable of quickly being deployed within an environment.


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 available land. Another characteristic of scalability is the flexibility it grants by having modules that can be easily replaced when obsolete or if updated technology is needed. This means organizations can forecast technological changes very few months in advance. So, a cloud data center solution doesn’t have to take years to plan out.


Being able to quickly build a data center environment doesn’t only revolve around the ability to scale. Being agile with data center platforms means being able to quickly meet the needs of an evolving business. Whether that means providing a new service or reducing downtime — modular data centers are directly designed around business and infrastructure agility. Where some organizations build their modular environment for the purposes of capacity planning; other organizations leverage modular data centers for their highly effective disaster recovery operations.

Mobility and Placement:

A modular data center can be delivered where ever it is desired by the end user. A container can claim ultimate mobility, as an ISO approved method for international transportation. A modular solution is mobile in the sense that it can be transported in pieces and re-assembled quickly on-site. Mobility is an attractive feature for those looking at modular for disaster recovery, as it can be deployed to the recovery site and be up and running quickly. As data center providers look to take on new offerings, they will be tasked with staying as agile as possible. This may very well mean adding additional modular data centers to help support growing capacity needs.

Density and PUE:

Density in a traditional data center is typically 100 watts per square foot. In a modular solution the space is used very efficiently and features densities as much as 20 kilowatts per cabinet. The PUE can be determined at commissioning and because the module is pre-engineered and standardized the PUE’s can be as low as 1.1–1.4. The PUE metric has also become a great gauge of data center green efficiency. Look for a provider that strives to break the 1.25 – 1.3 barrier or at least one that’s in the +/- 1.2 range.


The fact that modules are engineered products means that internal subsystems are tightly integrated 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 servers will save money in costly distribution gear and power loss from being so close. There are opportunities to use energy management platforms within modules as well, with all subsystems being engineered as a whole.

Disaster Recovery:

Part of the reason to design a modular data center is for resiliency. A recent Market Insights Report 2 conducted by Data Center Knowledge points to the fact that almost 50% of the surveyed organizations are looking at disaster recovery solutions as part of their purchasing plans over the next 12 months. This means creating a modular design makes sense. Quickly built and deployed, the modular data center can be built as a means for direct disaster recovery. For those organizations that have to keep maximum amounts of uptime, a modular architecture may be the right solution.


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

Real Estate:

Modules allow operators to build out in increments of power instead of space. Many second generation modular products feature evaporative cooling, taking advantage of outside air. A radical shift in data center design takes away the true brick and mortar of a data center, placing modules in an outdoor park, connected by supporting infrastructure and protected only by a perimeter fence. Some modular solutions offer stacking also — putting twice the capacity in the same footprint.



Seen as a part of the industrialization of data centers the modular solution is a standardized approach to build a data center, much like Henry Ford took towards building cars. Manufactured data center modules are constructed against a set model of components at a different location instead of the data center site. Standardized infrastructure within the modules enable standard operating procedures to be used universally. Since the module is prefabricated, the operational procedures are identical and can be packaged together with the modular solution to provide standardized documentation for subsystems within the module.

DCIM (Data Center Infrastructure Management):

Management of the module and components within is where a modular approach can take advantage of the engineering and integration that was 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. The other important aspect is that distributed modular data centers will now also be easier to manage. With DCIM solutions now capable of spanning the cloud — data center administrators can have direct visibility into multiple modular data center environments. This also brings up the question of what’s next in data center management.

Beyond DCIM – The Data Center Operating System (DCOS):

As the modular data center market matures and new technologies are introduced, data center administrators will need a new way to truly manage their infrastructure. There will be a direct need to transform complex data center operations into simplified plug & play delivery models. This means lights-out automation, rapid infrastructure assembly, and even further simplified management. DCOS looks to remove the many challenges which face administrators when it comes to creating a road map and building around efficiencies. In working with a data center operating system, expect the following:

  • An integrated end-to-end automated solution to help control a distributed modular data center design.

  • Granular centralized management of a localized or distributed data center infrastructure.

  • Real-time – proactive – environment monitoring, analysis and data center optimization.

  • DCOS can be delivered as a self-service automation solution or provided as a managed service.

Enterprise Alignment


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. Why is this important? Resources are expensive. Modular data centers can help right size solutions so that resources are optimally utilized. Over or under provisioning of data center resources can be extremely pricey — and difficult to correct.

Supply Chain:

Many of the attributes of a modular approach speak to the implementation of a supply chain process at the data center level. As a means of optimizing deployment, the IT manager directs vendors and controls costs throughout the supply chain.

Total Cost of Ownership:

  • Acquisition: Underutilized infrastructure due to over-building a data center facility is eliminated by efficient use of modules, deployed as needed.

  • Installation: Weeks and months instead of more than 12 months.

  • Operations: Standardized components to sup¬port and modules are engineered for extreme-efficiency.

  • Maintenance: Standardized components enable universal maintenance programs.

Information technology complies with various internal and external standards. Why should the data center be any different? Modular data center deployment makes it possible to quickly deploy standardized modules that allow IT and facilities to finally be on the same page.

About the Author(s)

Bill Kleyman

Bill Kleyman has more than 15 years of experience in enterprise technology. He also enjoys writing, blogging, and educating colleagues about tech. His published and referenced work can be found on Data Center Knowledge, AFCOM, ITPro Today, InformationWeek, NetworkComputing, TechTarget, DarkReading, Forbes, CBS Interactive, Slashdot, and more.

Subscribe to the Data Center Knowledge Newsletter
Get analysis and expert insight on the latest in data center business and technology delivered to your inbox daily.

You May Also Like