Are Prefabricated Solutions Inherently More Flexible than Traditional Data Center Builds?

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451 Research has forecast that after what it calls a “prolonged infancy”, the market for prefabricated modular data centers is set to expand in certain application sectors. There has also been growing consensus that conventional legacy data center design will be superseded by modular approaches. Claimed benefits include reduced total cost of ownership, reduced deployment time, improved efficiency and increased flexibility.

I met with Scott Neal, product marketing director of prefabricated data center solutions, for the EMEA launch of the company’s extended range of prefab modules during DatacenterDynamics London 2013, and asked him specifically whether the modular approach was inherently more flexible than traditional approaches.

Scott told me, “When you look at the typical design process or life cycle of the data center you see the phases that essentially a customer may go through as far as how he’s trying to build out his data center, how he’s going to grow, how he is going to scale up, and ultimately there are some limitations in that flexibility. So typically to design a whole data center that’s going to last several years it will become less flexible to the business needs.”

Traditional data center designs almost always intentionally incorporate excess capacity – room for growth – upfront because subsequent expansion of power and cooling capacity can be extremely costly and difficult in a production data center. This can often have the effect of causing overly conservative capacity planning, which not only results in higher capital costs but also a chronically inefficient data center; the designer plans for a worst case final load, overbuilding capacity to provision a number which is rarely, if ever hit.

But taking a prefabricated modular approach to build out can change that. Scott said, “With prefab modules you don’t have to build the entire data center at one time, you can scale your approach and it also allows you to shorten that design cycle so that you don’t have to design something a year out from now and you don’t have to plan what your needs are going to be a year out from now.”

The advantages of a pay-as-you-grow approach to scalability extends beyond conserving capital budgets and deferring maintenance costs, adding agility and flexibility to infrastructure provision. Scott commented, “You can plan in 4-6 month periods and therefore you can adjust to those needs, change your density, change your configuration, and change your entire solution if needed. So ultimately that’s where the inherent flexibility comes from with scalability because you have more flexible options to change as your needs change.”

Schneider Electric white paper #164, “TCO Analysis of a Traditional Data Center vs. a Scalable, Containerized Data Center” provides a cost comparison between traditional and prefabricated modular approaches. For example, by enabling data center infrastructure to be right-sized to the IT load requirement, not only can companies avoid the cost of oversized, overbuilt capacity, they can also maintain PUE at an acceptable level to help keep the economics of data center operations minimised. The white paper can be downloaded without cost from the Schneider Electric online library.

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