Does Prefabrication Mean Lower Cost Data Centers?

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With prefabricated modules evidently an important part of the company’s strategy for the data center sector, I caught up with Kevin Brown, Vice President Data Center Offer at Schneider Electric during DatacenterDynamics London 2013 to ask him whether the company’s extensive range of prefab solutions was going to result in lower cost data centers for customers.

My reason for asking was the publication of a new report from DatacenterDynamics Intelligence – “Assessing the Cost: Modular versus Traditional Build” which was being made widely available at the event. In the report, the analyst suggests that research based on a small sample of respondents suggests that cost savings can be achieved when a modular build is opted for, mainly due to the shorter time frames and less complex installation and commissioning processes involved. However, the report also says that modular provides enhanced energy efficiency compared to traditional builds.

It’s an interesting opinion and one which I’m sure many of those who take a traditional approach to data center design would take issue with, asserting that high levels of energy efficiency can be achieved with going modular. That said, research into modular methods of construction have indicated that efficiency around the site does tend to be raised and it can result in a better quality end result (although this research was not data center specific).

Kevin Brown’s opinion is that the answer to the lower cost question is complex: “The reality is that if you take into account the entire construction cost of the data center and look at that in a traditional build versus a prefabricated solution, in almost all cases our analysis shows that the customer will save some money by implementing a prefabricated data center. The real challenge for Schneider Electric is that you have to account for the total installed cost, that includes all of the installation costs and site work for the data center build. Many customers do not know how to account for all of that.”

Accounting for the total cost of data center construction is a complex equation which currently lacks a simple tool set allowing prefab and traditional builds to be compared. However, prefabrication offers the benefit of easier design, faster construction with less on-site services and more predictable performance. Kevin continued by telling me that Schneider Electric is investing to provide tools enabling people to assess the trade-off between traditional and prefabricated approaches. The tool set is aimed to provide greater transparency of costs for a more realistic comparison.

This led me to ask Kevin whether prefab solutions can help to reduce the overall life cycle cost of a data center deployment? He told me that what Schneider Electric are finding from talking to their customers is that it’s much easier to plan the design, and it’s much easier to visualize how they can have an agile solution that can adapt over the lifetime, rather than be locked in to a solution that meets today’s requirements but may change further down the line:

“Prefab means that the design and build phase now go much easier, but more importantly, now that there are standard blocks, it actually becomes much easier to train people to operate the data center. Therefore if you look over the whole life cycle it’s a much simpler process, therefore less expensive and much more efficient.”

Schneider Electric white paper #163: “Containerized Power and Cooling Modules for Data Centers” provides an  analysis of some of the cost savings which can be achieved using a modular approach to design and construction, and can be downloaded freely from the company’s website.

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