Modularity, Standardization and the Commoditization of Data Centers

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Schneider Electric has used DatacenterDynamics London as the platform to announce its’ introduction in the market for containerized data center infrastructure. In 2010, the company announced the EMEA version of its EcoBreeze free cooling economizer. In 2011 it announced Facility Power and Cooling Modules, to provide 500kW capacity in a self-contained, purpose-built ISO-sized enclosure which can be delivered to site on the back of a truck.

I asked Tony Day, Director of Data Center Projects and Professional Services at Schneider Electric, where the interest in containerised solutions was coming from?

“We’ve seen a lot of interest from different areas, particularly co-lo’s looking for a more granular architecture they can use to build out their facilities, and enterprise clients. I think it’s moving away from what we think of as containerised products. These are plant modules which are containerised to some degree, but they don’t have the restrictions of ISO containers – they’re bigger than ISO containers for a start. ISO containers were very much used in the cloud farms in the early days; landing sites, DR – disaster recovery – swing management were typical applications for containers. But today we are seeing Facility Modules being used in more conventional data centers.”

“The Facility Modules get used for power and cooling add-on – a lot of interest at DatacenterDynamics London has come from people looking to add extra capacity to existing facilities. Looking forward, things will move to next stage with modularity going right through to the data halls – part of a totally modular architecture for delivering complete data centers in a brand new way.”

So, does Tony day believe that the market is moving further towards standardization and away from custom engineered facilities?

“I think that the message is starting to get through about the benefits of standardization. There had been resistance in the early days to a perceived ‘one size fits all’ approach. But what we’re really trying to do is provide standard building blocks from which a customised total solution can be configured. Standard building blocks allows you to drive cost down, to drive quality up: To take out the uncertainty which we’d had with traditional custom builds. So I think that the ‘standardize’ message is getting through. We’ll still continue to do customized work because there will always be requirements to do something special for some special reason; but the majority of the market will move towards a standardized architecture.”

I asked Tony in what sort of areas a standardized architecture can save costs?

“It’ll save costs in CapEx and OpEx – there are serious savings to be made in both. A lot of benefits will be gained in terms of efficiency: When the whole architecture is supplied by a single provider, the whole system can be fully integrated and optimised. When you’re sourcing different parts from a multitude of different vendors you cannot hope to fully optimise the system – it’s not possible.”

How is quality improved through standardization, I asked?

“A lot of the integration and assembly is done in a factory rather than in the field, where conditions can be inclement. In factory conditions you have everything to hand, you have good lighting and you can apply the normal QA techniques. It’s just not possible to do that on site. In addition, there are lots of interface issues in a normal build – particularly where you are sourcing from a number of suppliers. There are always little things which need to be sorted out on site – something we refer to as ‘the fuzzy edge disease’ in the industry. With the standardized approach we can start to eliminate these issues.”

So, are modularity and standardization important stepping stones towards the commoditization of data centers?

“Absolutely. Modularity enables you to move towards standardization and that will allow you to commoditize data centers. The important thing to know is what is meant by standardization – does is mean a single approach to building a data center for the whole industry? No! The standardization takes place within each individual company so that each supplier can deliver a solution which is fully integrated and can be built out in a scalable, granular way.”

So, does Tony think that some of the Standards bodies might get involved by defining standards for interfaces and the like?

“To some degree possibly, but we have to be careful of becoming too prescriptive. We don’t want to stifle innovation. If we look at the development of this industry, historically some of the most interesting advances have been made by smaller companies, which have then been adopted by larger manufacturers, who then productize and commoditize bringing further benefits. But it would be foolish to stop people innovating through proscriptive approaches.”

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