Data Center World Session Outlines the Benefits of Prefabricated Modular Data Centers

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George Sutton has a dramatic example that illustrates the value of prefabricated, modular data centers vs. traditional “stick built” data centers. Speaking at the recent Data Center World conference in Orlando, the director of sales for Schneider Electric’s prefab division told a standing-room only crowd about a data center the Social Security Administration is building.

The plan was for the SSA data center to take 5 years to build. But the project is now already 5 years old and it’s projected to take another 4 years to complete. “So obviously costs have now escalated to 3 to 4 times what they initially were,” Sutton told me in a post-session interview. “This is something we run into all the time with traditional-build data centers.”

The SSA is an extreme example, as the typical time to build a data center from scratch is 12 to 24 months, Sutton says. “In the case of modular, you’re really down to 12 to 24 weeks to deploy,” from the time you sign off on the design.

And when we talk about prefab, we’re not just talking about the big ISO containers you see on the back of tractor trailer trucks or on container ships (a topic we’ve touched on before on this site). Containers can also be longer, wider and taller than the ISO models, with the look and feel of a traditional data center inside. Or they can be pre-engineered rooms that are designed to order and assembled on site.

Sutton came to Schneider Electric via the acquisition of AST Modular, which has built some 500 modules over the years. Only two were the same, Sutton says, as everything is engineered to order.

Modular data centers are also about 50% more energy efficient than traditional data centers, in part because they come with air containment systems built in. What’s more, there’s much less wasted space inside and they are well-insulated from outside heat and cold.

As he told the Data Center World audience during his session, modules can also be configured with data center infrastructure management software built in, fully integrated with the equipment within the data center. That integration is an issue that’s often overlooked in traditional data center builds, he says.

In the end, Sutton cited three key benefits of modular prefabricated data centers vs. traditional builds:

  1. Flexibility and scalability, meaning you can add IT space, power and cooling capacity as needed, rather than paying up front for capacity that may not be used for years.
  2. Dramatically faster deployment times.
  3. Predictability and performance. Schneider Electric can guarantee the power use effectiveness (PUE) factor of its prefabricated data centers “because we’ve built hundreds of them,” he says. And the costs are largely fixed, typically not changing more than 5% – a far cry from the SSA’s experience. And all acceptance testing is done in the factory, to ensure components are performing to specification.

Sutton encourages any doubters to come visit the Schneider Electric demo center in St. Louis and see for themselves. He told the story of one customer who, after seeing a module that Schneider Electric was assembling in Miami, sent an email to his boss with just three words: “Wow, wow, wow.”

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