Modular data centers: Trimming the fat off a bricks and mortar approach

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As little as a decade ago, data center infrastructure and design was given little attention by senior decision makers. In today’s world however, the tech industry has evolved and the importance of being nimble, flexible and scalable has become a primary focus globally. 

Starting at their foundations, businesses are urgently looking to adapt to stay competitive and future-proof their infrastructure.

Naturally, as the necessity and popularity of data center design has risen, so has the offering of infrastructures available in the market place. The variety of options has left IT decision makers with a pressing quandary – what approach to data center infrastructure is right for them?

An increasingly crucial decision is whether to take a traditional bricks and mortar approach, or opt for a modular data center solution. Modular data centers have been defined in numerous different ways over the years, but essentially involve an approach to designing and delivering data center infrastructure using prefabricated modules. 

Once used primarily for remote locations, modular systems have evolved to answer a magnitude of different data center needs in the enterprise data center and cloud space. 

In today’s market, modular data centers have become a popular solution for short and long-term capacity overflow and disaster recovery, as they offer a highly flexible and efficient solution that many businesses seek in the ever changing data world.

The modular data center market is growing rapidly too, with the global industry expected to triple in size to over $35 billion by 2020, as the benefits of this kind of deployment are becoming increasingly well understood. Uptake is driven by the attractive qualities of modularity such as speed of deployment and customization.

However, an equally appealing benefit is the competitive total cost of ownership. The cost saving benefits of a modular approach is becoming progressively more important to data center managers as pressure on IT spend grows through 2016 and beyond.

Moreover, modular data centers offer further temptation as they naturally have the ability to scale, delivering capacity as and when processing and storage needs change. 

This “just in time” rather than a “just in case” approach to data management is encouraging a “pay as you grow” strategy which can be a tactical solution for high-growth organizations.

Understanding the modular way

In days gone by, data centers could only be built using bricks and mortar. They were assembled on site and organically evolved resulting in a system built from a mix match of hardware and software vendors. Inevitably, this non-standardization of equipment caused issues when developing an entire data ecosystem.

But the industry is responding with the rise of modular data centers; a new and more future gazing approach towards infrastructure design. 

The most common approach is based on prefabricated modules, which can also be assembled to fully integrated solutions that deliver more flexibility, scalability and customization than the sole ISO shipping container alternatives. 

By engaging a technology vendor with in-house expertise in critical infrastructure equipment, integration issues can be minimized as the complete solution is made up of one supplier's equipment ecosystem.

How does cloud impact data center design?

In today’s market, only 15-16 percent of data center space is built for cloud use, the rest is traditional and enterprise use. 

However, as cloud becomes central to many of today’s latest “must have” technologies in the enterprise space, we’re going to see a more standardized approach to data center builds – especially due to the likes of Amazon and Google.

As the market matures, companies will move away from the bricks and mortar approach and adopt the modular, compute and storage approach to data centers.

The “compute and storage” system, in essence means that the layouts of racks, equipment and design are all going to become the same – much like a “cookie cutter” – so that one design can simply be replicated time and time again. 

This alone is faster to transport, simpler to install, offers the option of easily extending the data center as and when capacity requirements increase, and above all, is far more cost effective than designing and building a data center from scratch.

Modular expands past data centers

Moving beyond the data center, the cookie-cutter approach can be applied to a whole range of different systems of any size. 

Cooling, white space, power, and even street furniture – such as the fibre connectors (the little green or grey boxes at the side of the road to you or me) are all becoming modular as design replication is being realized as a money and time saver. An attractive “win-win” situation.

Whole industries will be transformed over the coming years as this modularization technology will be adapted and used in sectors like banking, retail, automotive, medical and power as these markets demand better technology to help gather more data and customer information.

To adopt, or not to adopt?

Choosing a data center is, and quite rightly should be, one of the biggest strategic decisions a company will take. The options presented may be many and varied, but the flexibility, scalability and potential cost savings that a modular data center promises remain compelling. 

However, with data center decision makers still keen on the traditional bricks and mortar approach, the debate is expected to continue in the industry for the year ahead and beyond.

What is more likely is that a hybrid approach will be taken. This will offer businesses the ability to pick and choose the facilities they need therefore catering for a wide range of circumstances.

  • Viktor Petik is the managing director for the Integrated Modular Solutions business at Emerson Network Power.