Does Santa Have a Data Centre In A Box For You?

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What’s in the package under your Christmas tree? Peter Judge thinks it could be a modular data centre

As IT people wrap their presents for Christmas, some of them might be hoping for a great big package: a data centre in a box.

The modular data centre idea was first presented about five years ago, but the market had been quiet for a while. Now, as we approach Christmas, it seems that a lot of tech firms are wrapping up some nice surprises, and end users are finally getting to grips with the concept.

schneider electric module on the roadBatteries not included

The first wave of modular data centres – from the likes of Sun Microsystems and Cisco– were created by taking ISO-standard shipping containers (the kind you see on ships and hauled by articulated lorries), filling them with servers, adding cooling (inside or outside the box) and creating a go-anywhere data centre in a can.

That’s a great concept for getting data centres up and running at remote sites and without having to do any building work. But somewhere along the way, the message got confused with the fashion for green infrastructure, and the drawbacks got ignored.

It’s great that you can deliver a data centre in a can, on a regular truck. But those big containers  were hard to commoditise.  And they were not designed for access: who wants to squeeze into a tin can to service your servers?

Meanwhile, data centres built with brick-and-mortar have gone on improving, and it seems that there is no need for most people to go modular.

And yet… a lot of modular concepts have snuck into conventional data centres. Colt, for instance, has pre-fabricated units it can ship anywhere (including Iceland).

Semi-prefab versus all-modular

At Data Center Dynamics in London last month, power and cooling supremo Schneider Electric sang praises to “semi-prefab”, where the cooling and power systems are contained in modules, plugged into the outside of a site, so a normal building can be quickly turned into an efficient data centre.

“The cost-advantages of prefabricated data centres were exaggerated,” said Kevin Brown, head of data centres at Schneider.

But modular looks set for a renaissance. Schneider itself makes a 2MW module, using a customised container that gives more access to the IT and other kit inside.

And AST, the specialist Spanish firm that has made a big name in containerised centres, has branched out beyond ISO-standard containers, making units – which may be somewhat simllar to Colt’s – designed to bolt together to create uncluttered white space instead of steel culs-de-sac.

Amongst customers, eBay is leading the charge. The fuel-cell powered extension to its Utah data centre is a hybrid. There’s white space designed for high-tier services, and less critical loads are being put into an expandable row of modules.

eBay’s custom has inspired a new generation of pods from mainstream vendors. Both HP and Dell have designed new modules – HP’s EcoPod and Dell’s Epic – which are higher-density, and higher capacity than ever before.

Schneider’s Brown reckons the time is right for modules to start a big surge into mainstream data centres, and eBay’s Dean Nelson agrees: “Before, I had to buy a full container, and depreciate it over three years. Now I can buy them empty, and fill them as I need them.”

A version of this article appeared on Green Data Center News

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