Making the Case for Modular Data Centers

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I was recently asked to participate on a panel for a podcast discussing modular data centers and, in preparation, put together a few notes on the topic. As I reviewed my notes, it occurred to me that I could turn them into a blog post. Nothing like repurposing, right?

First, let’s define what a data center module is. Pretty much any component of a data center comes in a modular form, including UPSs, cooling and power distribution systems. Modules can also be grouped together to form subsystems. A subsystem may include a UPS modules, switchgear and automatic transfer switches (ATS), for example. You can build an entire data center entirely from modules, including an IT room module, a power module, cooling module and backup power/generator module.  If the modules are small enough they may even fit into a self-contained “all in one” module.

Modules deliver three main benefits as compared to building a data center piece by piece: speed, performance and cost. Modules enable you to build a data center much faster, as they are pretty much plug and play. Performance is improved because modules are built in factories under strict quality control and engineered to deliver peak performance. And they are less costly because, being built in a factory, they are the product of skilled factory labor and repeatable processes, which drives down manufacturing time.

Modular data centers also bring operational efficiencies. In addition to a faster installation time, modules are also likely to deliver quality performance more quickly than a data center built from scratch. It may be years before some data centers achieve their designed performance specifications with respect to measurements such as power usage effectiveness (PUE) for example. With prefabricated data center modules, design specs are verified in the factory before they are shipped, so you get the full benefit right out of the gate.

Some worry that if they use prefabricated modules, they won’t be able to address their particular data center requirements. They needn’t be concerned, as there is enough flexibility in module options to meet customers’ special requests.  Vendors who do agree to heavily modify their existing module designs based on customer requests aren’t really doing their industry any favors and sometime forego the benefits of lower cost, faster deployment and high performance.

Now, to be sure, modules are more suitable in some circumstances more than others. They make the most is in three main areas:

  • When the customer lacks expertise in data center design and building techniques
  • When the customer needs a new or revamped data center right away
  • For very large data centers where the customer prefers a building block approach, enabling the data center to scale as demand warrants

That last point is an important one, as it enables customers to save capital costs up front by “right-sizing” the data center instead of building for an expected peak demand that is years in the future. That is also important from an energy perspective, because the customer won’t be paying to power and cool a data center that is larger than what is really needed.

To learn more about modular data centers, check out APC by Schneider Electric white paper number 164, by my colleague Wendy Torrell, “TCO Analysis of a Traditional Data Center vs. a Scalable, Containerized Data Center.”


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