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Modular or Container Based Data Centers–Do They Make Sense?

By Dave Cappuccio | May 19, 2011 | 1 Comment

Power and CoolingGreen ITData CentersData Center Design

Over the past few years, data center design has shifted away from the traditional idea of building out large expanses of IT-ready floor space to an era where smaller component-based solutions are the trend. A variety of different options from vendors have been introduced, and the two prevailing trends we see are container-based prebuilt solutions or modular component-based assembled on site) solutions. Since these solutions are fairly new to the market, and the terminology can be confusing, this research will outline the differences between the solutions and offer possible use case scenarios for you to consider.

What Are Containers or Container Based Data Centers?

A data center container is a shipping container set up to accommodate IT equipment. The typical data center container is based on ISO standards for ease of shipping; also, it may be modified in a number of ways to better support the secure and practical use of IT equipment. The basic equipment that most of these containers are designed to support includes servers, storage and networking gear. In addition, containers may be designed to support some combination of uninterruptible power supply (UPS), generators and/or chillers, with some of that equipment supported in the same containers as the servers and storage equipment, or in separate and distinct containers. Generally, data center containers have some connectivity elements, so that power input, cooling capabilities (e.g., water pipes) and network traffic can be fed into the container from the outside.

Containers are designed to be weather resistant, and, in some cases, are weather hardened for use in extreme environments, although most use cases see them being implemented within existing buildings or shells of buildings. Containers are also designed to be TIA-942 Tier 3 capable (depending on supporting infrastructure), and focus on high levels of energy efficiency, typically with a PUE of 1.3 or below.

What Are Modular or Component-Based Data Centers?

Modular data centers evolved from the basic premise of containers — that, if designed appropriately, extreme levels of performance could be attained in data centers using a consistent design technique, and capital costs could be reduced by standardizing components, construction and the supply chain. The modular design approach has actually split in two directions over the past few years. While some vendors have focused on the overall design of a complete data center solutions (e.g., HP FlexDC and i/o’s Data Systems i/o Anywhere), others have moved the modular design concept down to the rack or row level (e.g., APC InfraStruxure or Emerson SmartAisle).

In modular data centers, a core infrastructure design is developed that will eventually support multiple IT areas. The IT areas can be added as needed to support future growth, until the base power requirements are exceeded, at which time either the base module can be upgraded or another modular unit is put into place. Most of the vendor offerings in this space start with a base module of 250kVA or more and IT space of at least 500 to 2,500 square feet, which can then be scaled, but, as the market evolves, we expect to see a greater variety of choices (essentially modules on demand) to support individual needs.

In modular component designs, vendors have begun to focus on self-contained row or rack solutions where a predefined unit (e.g., eight racks) is delivered on-site and is already configured for power and cooling support. These units can be as simple as basic racks with monitoring and directed air cooling, or as complex as completely self-contained environments with either air, water or refrigerant-based cooling for extreme densities. UPS support can be delivered by the customer or integrated as part of the solution.

Bottom Line

When planning for data center growth, it is important that all alternatives be reviewed. Newer modular design techniques and container-based solutions should be a critical piece of your analysis. When used appropriately, they can solve specific problems, while reducing capital costs and the time it takes to implement new capacity.

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  • There are hybrid systems out there as well such as Elliptical Mobile Solution’s Micro Modular Data Centers (MMDC). They combine the environmental protections and “complete data center solutions” of the shipping container based systems with the rack level density and scalability of the modular row or rack based systems.