Modular data centers: A fast, secretive option that's spreading

Data centers built inside shipping containers can be built quickly and relocated easily

When Australian firm WesTrac needed to expand its data center capacity quickly, the company bought the equivalent of a Band-Aid for its server needs: A containerized data center. The company, which supplies Caterpillar brand heavy-machinery to Australian customers and others, found itself with too little data center to meet the needs of its latest IT project. Because of space issues, WesTrac could not expand its current facility. Instead, the company decided to use a pre-packaged data center, housed, and shipped in standard-sized cargo containers: one for the servers and one for the chillers and power infrastructure.

The company contracted with IBM in December, 2009 for its containerized data center, which Big Blue dubs a portable modular data center (PMDC). The portable server facility will host the IT project until the company can create a more permanent solution, after which the portable data center could be reborn as a disaster recovery solution.

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The solution "enables all IT equipment to be easily serviced and maintained from within a closed, physically secure, and environmentally tight container," Mark Curtis, communications infrastructure manager for WesTrac, said in a statement.

A secretive market

Containerized data centers are a niche market, but an important one for companies that are backed into a corner, computationally speaking. Other industry clients use the systems for sensitive applications, such as a data-processing hub during oil exploration, while some militaries buy the data-centers-in-a-box to put processing power closer to the front lines.

For these reasons, most clients don't want to give details of their particular implementation, says David Cappuccio, chief of research for infrastructure at analyst firm Gartner.

"Most of the people that (consider them) are in an emergency situation, and they don't want to talk about it," said Cappuccio. "These things have kind of morphed into emergency solutions."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, WesTrac declined to be interviewed for this article.

Savings vs. speed

Companies typically do not save much money on building the data center, generally finding only single-digit savings, Cappuccio says. Yet, building a containerized data center takes eight to 12 weeks, where building a similar, more permanent facility would take 12 to 18 months, he says.

IBM started focusing on the niche market about three years ago, according to Brian Fisher, a services executive for IBM. Shrinking data centers to fit inside a container and making them easily shut down and moved to another location is the latest approach to data centers for the company.

"We realized that there is an opportunity for an appliance-like data center for out of the way areas," Fisher says.

Militaries have shown the greatest interest in a mobile data center that can be moved closer to ongoing operations. Yet varied applications have interested the commercial sector as well. The oil and gas industry has shown interest for deploying data centers in remote locations currently being explored. Movie and animation studios look to augment their ability to crunch the numbers needed for today's computation-intensive special effects.

IBM's PMDCs (portable modular data centers) come in six standard designs, mostly configured for a 20-foot container, but 40-foot and 53-foot systems are available as well. Prices start around $500,000 for an infrastructure-only 20-foot container without the actual IT hardware. A fully configured 40-foot container would cost about $2 million to $2.5 million, according to Fisher. So far, IBM has shipped less than 200 PMDCs, he says.

Other major firms targeting the niche market for containerized data centers include HP, Dell, Sun (now, Oracle) and SGI (formerly, Rackable). Last month, HP announced that it would start shipping data centers in a 20-foot container. HP calls its product performance-optimized data centers, or PODs.

The latest market could be schools short on building space, says Gartner's Cappuccio. Containerized data centers offer another options for educational institutions mulling whether to house students or servers.

"It is a solid niche market that no one knows about," Cappuccio says.

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This story, "Modular data centers: A fast, secretive option that's spreading" was originally published by CIO.

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