Data Center

Coming to an Agreement on Definitions Around Prefabricated Modular Data Centers

Anyone involved in data centers undoubtedly frequently hears the terms “prefabricated” and “modular” with respect to data center components.  We all think we understand these terms, but what do these terms really mean, and are they completely understood throughout the industry?

I got to wondering about those questions after reading a white paper written by my colleague Wendy Torell titled, “Types of Prefabricated Modular Data Centers.” In it, she proposes some standard terminology for categorizing various types of prefabricated modular data centers, while defining and comparing their attributes. The paper also provides a framework to help customers choose the best approach based on their business requirements.

As the white paper (number 165) says:

Many terms, with varying definitions and scopes, have been used to describe data center systems or subsystems that are pre-assembled in a factory. A partial list includes:

  • Containerized
  • Self-contained
  • Modular
  • Prefabricated
  • Portable
  • Mobile
  • Pod (based)
  • Skid (based)

These terms create confusion and lead to dysfunctional discussions because they overlap and are ambiguous in meaning.

The paper goes on to define a prefabricated modular data center as a data center that is:

    1. Made up of at least one pre-engineered, factory-integrated, and pre-tested assembly of subsystems that have traditionally been installed separately onsite
    2. Mounted on a skid or in an enclosure

To eliminate any further ambiguity, the paper presents a framework for classifying the different types of prefabricated modular data centers, based on three attributes. Torell presents definitions and categories along with the three attributes that, together, define the majority of prefabricated modular data centers. They are:

  • The functional block the component serves, meaning power, cooling or IT
  • Form factor, which is either an ISO container, some other form of non-ISO enclosure, or skid-mounted
  • Configuration, which comes down to a fully prefabricated data center, semi-prefabricated or all-in-one data center (where all components are located in a single structure).

I was interested in this white paper in part because I recently attended a webinar hosted by a couple of my colleagues, Joe Reele and Mark Hurley, titled, “The Data Center Revolution: Simple is Better.”  They talked about the pressures data centers are under today, resulting pain points and an approach to alleviating that pain.

The approach focuses heavily on simplifying several aspects of data center design and build processes by using four strategies:

  • Reference designs
  • Pre-fabricated/modular architecture
  • DCIM software
  • A holistic approach to data center design/build and operation

Joe and Mark went into some detail on pre-fabricated/modular architecture configurations, outlining the various options. They also discussed how this modular approach enables you to take a building block approach to constructing a data center that saves money by allowing operators to add power and cooling capacity in increments, only as they are needed.

Check out the webinar on demand to learn more. And the white paper “Types of Prefabricated Modular Data Centers” (number 165) serves as a good companion to the webinar. It helps to make sure we’re all on the same page regarding terminology while providing valuable advice to help data center owners make informed choices about which design/build strategy is the best fit for them.


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