IBM makes Big Green push for modular datacenters

Designing and building a datacenter has many pitfalls: There's time spent -- and often wasted -- as representatives from departments throughout the organization gather round the table and butt heads over the design of the new facility. There's also the wasteful practice of building more datacenter than you actually need, be it in terms of size, density, or redundancy. You end up stuck paying the bills to build a

Designing and building a datacenter has many pitfalls: There's time spent -- and often wasted -- as representatives from departments throughout the organization gather round the table and butt heads over the design of the new facility. There's also the wasteful practice of building more datacenter than you actually need, be it in terms of size, density, or redundancy. You end up stuck paying the bills to build and power that extra infrastructure without getting any return (until the time comes that you need it).

IBM has set out to address these problems as part of the second phase of its $1 billion Project Big Green initiative. The company this week announced the availability of new modular datacenter designs, aimed at helping companies install and scale datacenters quickly and in sync with their needs.

The notion of designing datacenters in a modular, "pay-as-you-grow" fashion seems to be gaining momentum. IBM already offers the 500- and 1,000-square-foot Scalable Modular Data Center for smaller organizations, and customers such as Bryant University have reaped the benefits. Similarly, Sun, unveiled a highly modular, scalable datacenter in Santa Clara, Calif. last year.

Model modularity

One of IBM's new offerings is called the Enterprise Modular Data Center (EMDC). It starts at a minimum 5,000-square-foot standardized module, including racking systems, raised floor, power, and cooling. (IBM calls them "shrink-wrapped," but they don't actually come in, say, a storage container -- unlike the other modular datacenter I'll discuss next.)

The base EMDC module delivers density of 100W per square foot, according to Brian Canney, IBM Global Services executive for site and facilities services. As a company's computing needs increase, however, the datacenter can be expanded on the fly in two ways, according to Canney, thanks to the standardized nature of the modules. The datacenter operator could expand horizontally up to 25,000 square feet by adding additional 5,000-square-foot modules, or "vertically," as Canney puts it, which entails increasing the density of the facility in increments of 100W per square foot.

Thus over time, a company could theoretically expand its datacenter 12 times, starting at a 5,000-square-foot, low-density facility and eventually reaching 25,000 square feet of high-density datacenter with 300W of power per square foot.

Customers can have some say in the design of the module -- for example, opting for more or less redundancy, but again, it's mostly a standardized design. The payoff: Implementation is 25 percent faster than you'd expect with a customized datacenter design.

According to IBM, the modules are also highly energy efficient, in the 66 percent range, which certainly would make sense compared to a datacenter built in a more piecemeal fashion.

Michelle Bailey, vice president of research at IDC, sees some real benefits to the modular approach to datacenters as opposed to the customized approach. Beyond the benefits of saving money by paying as you grow, she noted the time to market is much faster: A customized datacenter takes three and a half years to build while this model can be up and running "in a matter of weeks to months." "This, to me, has legs. Today's datacenter is a one-off: everything is customized. What IBM is talking about is, 'This shouldn't be a science project everytime we put [a new datacenter] together,'" Bailey says.

Another advantage to embracing a standardized approach to datacenters, according to Bailey, is that they're easier to manage from afar. If you have a datacenter in California and an identical one in Banglaore, an admin at the California facility would be better equipped to remotely address problems at the datacenter in India were problems to arise there after-hours.

Box o' datacenter

In addition to the EMDC, IBM announced the availability of a Portable Modular Data Center (PMDC). The idea here is, a company could have ready-to-run datacenters -- including power and cooling systems and remote monitoring -- delivered in 20- or 40-foot-long shipping containers. (Please allow 8 to 12 weeks for delivery.) Just add power and voila, you've got a functional datacenter.

According to IBM, the PMDC "can be shipped and deployed into any environment" as the container is designed to resist harsh weather conditions, such as extreme heat or humidity. It also can "support multiple technology vendors and multiple systems in an industry standard rack environment."

Don't be surprised if this sounds familiar, though: Sun unveiled a datacenter in a box in 2006, called Project Blackbox. Similarly, Rackable Systems offers one called ICE Cube, also unveiled in 2006. The fact that IBM is following suit certainly demonstrates that the model -- perhaps considered a crackpot idea initially -- has a market. Not convinced? Consider that Microsoft has announced plans in April of this year to employ 220 container-based datacenters in its new Chicago facility.

Rounding out IBM's modular datacenter announcement: The company is now offering a new modular system called a High-Density Zone. The idea is to provide "incremental cooling and power capability" to help companies groom parts of their existing datacenters for high-density computing. The company says that the HDZ system "can be swapped into an existing datacenter without disrupting current operations and can provide up to 35 percent cost savings compared to retrofitting an existing data center."

Modularity and scalability are clearly critical components to a smart, sustainable datacenter strategy, a point that's becoming abundantly clearer through the efforts of IT heavyweights such as IBM. I expect we'll see more companies following suit. Soon enough, the race will be on to deliver datacenters that aren't only the most energy efficient, but that also can be up and running -- as well as expanded -- in the least amount of time. Talk about on-demand computing ...

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