Modular Data Centres: Nerdy But Cool

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Containers got backing this week from Swedish designers and data centre nerds, says Peter Judge. How can they fail?

Modular data centres, once seen as inefficient compared with bespoke buildings, have been rapidly gaining acceptance.

In fact, they now have endorsement from two sources almost the exact opposite of each other – hipsters and geeks. They have been simultanrously adopted by a “cool” Swedish designer and been given the thumbs-up by that engaging bunch of anoraks and train-spotters, the Green Grid.

A data centre fit for Mars?

Modular Data Centres Stockholm is the brainchild of Jon Karlung, who designed the Bahnhof facility in Stockholm known as the “James Bond” data centre as it is designed to look like a spy’s lair. That was very much a bespoke system but Karlung has now been converted to the idea of modular.

Of course someone like Karlung is not going to make bog-standard shipping containers. The concept is to imagine the data centre as if it is being built on Mars (see picture).

In practice this means using standard size units designed to look nicer than normal shipping containers but still fit on the same trucks. These come in three flavours, a server module that holds 35 40U racks as well as modules for cooling and back-up power.

A trial unit is being built in Stockholm’s Science Park at Kista with three server modules and MDC has published proposals for a 60 Megawatt server farm which would include 100 server Modules with 3500 racks. “It not only looks cooler than the Facebook server farm (recently announced in Sweden), it´s more secure and costs half the price,” claims MDC’s site.

MDC’s write-ups are big on the design side, which Karlung has said is neglected in data centres. He thinks that better looking modules will neutralise people’s objections to modular data centres and still come in cheaper than bespoke facilities.

Bouncy command module

The command unit is intended to be space-age and is designed by explorer Per Lindstrad using a material also used in “the hangar of the Swedish fighter jet JAS 39 Gripen”. It’s also inflatable, however, and looks like a bouncy castle, albeit one where users would tend to bounce off the sides.

That’s a contrast from the containers, which are cased in bulletproof steel.

Inside the module we are back with a science fiction aesthetic, with the addition of a Star Wars storm trooper in the design mock-up.

Underneath the glossy packaging, MDC is offering the same benefits as other modular schemes. Units can be pre-packaged, built to order, shipped and installed in a matter of months. That is more or less the same as the selling point of other container-based systems.

Modular data centres also include those of Colt, which are more like pre-fabricated server rooms, which get away from the narrow spaces created by the shipping unit format.

All of these options are looked at  in a new White Paper from the Green Grid, the consortium of vendors and users looking to make data centres more efficient.

Some in the group will be sceptical that containers can be as efficient as a “proper” data centre and the white paper hedges its bets on that point. It sees them mainly as a way to reduce risk.

The Green Grid, in its usual fashion, rolls in another acronym for the concept, calling the approach CMDF (containerised modular data centre facilities). Containers, it says, can “deploy IT equipment, capacity, and services in less time, for less cost, and under new and more business-appropriate delivery and costing models”.

Pre-fab  units can reduce risks in time and quality but warns one size doesn’t fit all: “Organisations
should carefully weigh their needs against the advantages, risks, and challenges that a CMDF deployment may present,” it says.

Backed by the cool and the nerdy, how can containers fail?

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