Make mine modular: The rise of prefab data centers

Prefab data centers have many benefits, but beware of vendor lock-in

When John Campbell talks about Purdue University's soon-to-be implemented modular data center, he can hardly hide his enthusiasm.

"From a business position, on keeping costs down [and] trying to get as efficient a solution as possible, this is a very, very viable solution," says Campbell, associate vice president of academic technologies at the Indiana university.

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Modular data center design relies on inexpensive building materials and efficient construction practices such as preconfiguring shipping containers with server racks and other IT equipment for easy drop-off and deployment.

For Guardian Life Insurance, it's a matter of reducing the company's data center footprint, says CIO Frank Wander. The New York-based insurer is reducing its six data centers down to two -- one it will own and one it will lease, Wander explained at the recent Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders conference.

"We'll have a pod and go down tremendously in terms of space," he said. "We haven't done it yet, but that's where we're heading."

Confounding early skeptics, who often compared modular data centers to mobile homes, interest in modular data centers is now growing to the extent that some observers feel that the modular model could become the standard for virtually all future data center construction.

"I like to say that the large, monolithic data center is dead," says IDC analyst Michelle Bailey. Within five years, the modular model will become "almost the default approach" to data center construction, she predicts.

"You would probably have to have a really good reason for wanting to build a very large, overprovisioned data center," Bailey says, noting that enterprises are sometimes forced to build such facilities simply to meet local zoning requirements. Some cities and towns don't allow modular containers, requiring traditional structures instead. The Modular Movement

Albert Lee, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates, agrees that the modular model is on a roll. "From the overall technology trending perspective, I think this is the right way to go and [is] the next generation of the data center," he says. He points to the growing number of modular providers as proof of the approach's growing popularity.

In recent years, IBM, Dell, HP, Oracle, Microsoft, and Cisco, plus a gaggle of other companies large and small, have worked hard to change the way enterprises view and create data centers.

That said, it's still very early going for modular data centers. Bailey estimates that about 85 were sold last year, and she predicts that about 145 will be sold this year. Many of those customers are still in implementation mode, with only a handful of companies, primarily vendors, in full-fledged production.

The popularity of modular data centers is growing because the approach promises to help almost any enterprise, regardless of size or industry sector, add IT space in less time and at a lower cost than building or expanding a conventional operations center. And unlike a traditional data center, a modular facility can be located almost anywhere -- next to an office building, on a spare piece of land, on a company parking lot or inside a warehouse -- as long as there's access to energy, water and network resources. "The two big things that people consider are reducing the cost and cutting the time to deployment," Lee says.

Another advantage of modular data centers is that they allow users to start out small and expand as needed. "It starts to become more affordable for midsize companies that want more of a true data center room rather than just a small server room," Bailey says. "It's very different from having to build a traditional brick-and-mortar data center, where you're trying to figure out how much capacity you'll need for the next 20 years."

Modular offerings come in three basic styles. There's the original concept of a reconfigured shipping container (usually referred to as a "pod") that the vendor typically packs with IT gear and drops off at the customer's selected location.

Alternatively, some vendors have begun offering prefab structures that are designed to provide more flexibility in both interior space and layout configuration. "It gets either partially or completely built in a factory and shipped to your site; then the building is completed on site," Bailey explains.

The third approach is a hybrid model that combines both modular and traditional features. Here, vendors lease quickly configurable and expandable modular spaces, located inside large office buildings or plant-style facilities.

Many modular vendors, particularly pod makers, market their offerings as all-in-one packages that include servers and related infrastructure equipment, as well as power, cooling and other resources. "It can be a convenience or a trap, depending on how you look at it," Lee says, noting that customers may find themselves gaining speed and convenience in the short term but losing IT flexibility in the future.

Purdue's compelling case

Campbell began exploring his modular options for Purdue after it became apparent that the university's high-performance data center was in dire need of additional power. The facility's seemingly unquenchable thirst for electricity -- driven in part by three large server clusters built within the past three years -- was threatening to drain its co-tenants' power resources. "It's a 10-story building; we are in the basement of that building, and we consume 85 percent of the power," Campbell says.

An electrical upgrade was vital, but Campbell couldn't wait for the required bureaucratic approvals. "Getting an electrical upgrade ... is a two-to-three-year process," he says. "We just didn't have time for the process to work its way through."

Campbell realized that he needed to do something fast or the university's research projects would soon begin suffering. He and his staff examined and rejected several potential options. "We looked at other places on campus that might have space and power available, but we couldn't find any," he explains. Colocation was also considered and eventually rejected due to logistical and cost concerns.

Running out of choices, Campbell and his team turned their attention to modular offerings and saw several benefits. Pod-based structures, which could be deployed quickly on land near the main data center, could reduce the pressure on existing resources and accommodate future growth.

Most important, the modular structures wouldn't have to undergo the same approval process as a new building. "They are considered a piece of equipment, rather than a building or construction expense," Campbell says. "So we could take this off the shelf and, in two or four months, have it up and going."

Campbell ordered a pod from Hewlett-Packard with the idea that additional structures could be added as the need arose. The modular facility will be an adjunct to the main data center.

The approach also turned out to be significantly less expensive than any of the other options Campbell and his staff considered. "It was about half the cost of what we would pay for co-lo space," he says. There were other benefits, too. "It's extremely energy-efficient, compared to our older data center," he says. "It's more flexible . . . we can build and add as we need the growth."

The Purdue pod holds one research cluster, as will any new pods that are added later. One drawback is that the pods don't have a lot of space for people to work in. "There's plenty of room to work in the front, but it's tighter in the back," says Campbell. "You really want [to use pods] for something that you don't plan on accessing all the time."

Another challenge, Campbell says, was getting staffers accustomed to working in a facility located in an external structure. "The service support staff was already familiar with accessing anything and fixing anything in a remote way, but it seemed a lot easier when the data center was still down the hall," he says. "This [new data center] is down the street, and while they've been using all the remote stuff for years, it's made things a little bit different when an onsite visit is needed."

Supporting the final frontier?

Raymond O'Brien, chief technology officer for IT at NASA's Ames Research Center, is exploring the feasibility of modular data centers and is trying out a pod from Cirrascale, a Poway, Calif.-based provider of cloud-based systems and modular data centers. He plans to see if data center pods could help NASA better manage its voracious computing appetite.

"Growth estimates and other factors showed we could be on a course to exhaust available data center capacity at Ames Research Center and possibly some other NASA centers," he says. "We decided to acquire a containerized data center to better understand if this alternative would be a good way to address our planned growth."

NASA juggles scores of research projects, each with its own computing needs -- an operating model that seems almost ideal for the use of modular facilities. Being able to quickly and easily add computing and storage resources without having to deal with space constraints in existing data centers is very appealing, O'Brien says.

While he hasn't yet reached a final conclusion on the modular option, O'Brien says NASA has already learned an important lesson: Pay attention to cable management.

"There isn't much room inside containers," O'Brien says. "The server equipment is very densely packed, so having a good cable management approach will ensure [that] your technical support team can move around inside and easily identify the cabling associated with server and network resources requiring attention or maintenance."

While modular data centers may offer a variety of potential benefits, potential users need to be aware of some gotchas. Vendor lock-in is perhaps the biggest drawback. "You're very heavily reliant upon [a single] providers to give you service," says IDC's Bailey. "So if you buy an HP container, you've really got to go to HP for the service on that."

Users considering modular systems should also remember that there are other ways to add data center capacity without building new facilities, says Forrester Research analyst Richard Fichera, noting that two such options are virtualization and cloud computing. "People keep buying all this new stuff and packing it more densely into existing data centers," he observes. "I've known data centers that five years ago were out of capacity, but they keep re-engineering inside the existing structure and they keep stretching it out."

Bailey notes that while modular facilities are meeting the needs of a growing number of enterprises, they still aren't a good match for some organizations. "If you're a company that has a fairly predictable understanding of what your growth is going to be regarding IT technology, and if you can fairly well forecast the amount of power you'll need to service that IT load, perhaps you should go with a more traditional approach to building a data center," she says.

Bailey says that careful planning and smart utilization practices can allow organizations to reap long-term benefits from conventional data centers. An existing facility -- already bought and paid for -- may be able to accommodate more equipment, making it a better financial bet than adding a modular unit.

Paul Major, managing director of IT at Colorado ski resort operator Aspen Skiing, says prefab wasn't an option for his new data center because one of his goals was "getting all our IT people together in one place, for the first time."

Campbell says he "strongly encourages" IT managers who are considering modular data centers to visit such a facility before making a decision. "Take the time to visit," he says. "Walk into them to see how they're cabled up, and make sure it fits your environment."

O'Brien recommends keeping a close eye on the swiftly evolving modular market. "There's a lot of rapid innovation taking place," he says. "It's up to you to keep your antenna up and stay on top of all the latest developments."

Edwards is a technology writer in the Phoenix area. Contact him at jedwards@gojohnedwards.com. Additional reporting by Johanna Ambrosio.

This story, "Make mine modular: The rise of prefab data centers" was originally published by Computerworld.

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