Modular makes more sense?

Written by Phil Alsop, Editor, DCS Europe Published 2020-10-21 10:48:48

Data centre design has come a long way in the past few years, with modular design growing in popularity.

Modular data centres mean different things to different people. For some, modular means the same as containerised. A standard-size container is fitted out with all of the required data centre facilities – power, cooling, connectivity, fire suppression and the like – and is then delivered to site. For others, a modular data centre is a purpose built pod, or mini data centre, which is constructed off-site, delivered to the customer and installed at the customer’s premises in either a purpose-built data hall or an existing building, such as a no longer used warehouse or factory. And for others, a modular data centre is actually a fairly sizeable modular building, manufactured off-site, and then brought to the site and assembled. As many buildings as required, depending on the design of these units, can be added, alongside and on top of, each other.

Finally, micro data centres – much talked about in relation to the edge – are also a form of modular data centre. Standard, small units which can be installed in almost any location, so long as there is power and connectivity.

However, for the purposes of this blog, we’re going to take a look at the modular data centre in terms of building out a single site over time, as and when extra capacity is required. Let’s start with a list of the potential advantages of taking a modular approach to data centre build:

  • Modular data centres can be designed to offer high density, low PUE environments
  • Modular data centres can be installed and commissioned quickly – hence deployed much faster than traditional data centres
  • Modular data centres can be built and installed more economically than traditional data centres
  • Modular data centres are constructed from standard components
  • Modular data centres, as their name suggests, offer scalable, flexible facilities
  • Modular data centres mean that there will never be large amounts of unused data centre space, which has to be paid for

Examining this list in more detail, let’s start with the idea that a modular data centre can be designed to offer high density, low PUE environments. Well, that’s definitely true, but, perhaps more importantly, taking a modular approach means that, every time you build out some more data centre space, you can take advantage of the very latest technologies available to ensure the optimum build. In other words, you might have a two year old data centre. The racks, cabinets, cabling, fire suppression, power, cooling and various other infrastructure installed at the time might have been the very last word in design and performance efficiency. Two years later, that’s no longer the case. However, the good news is that the new data centre modules you build out can use today’s infrastructure components, not two year old ones.

Furthermore, you also have the flexibility to ‘retire’ older data centre modules over time, and then upgrade or replace them with the very latest in infrastructure technology.

Building out a modular data centre – to a standard design and using standard components – can be done at a much faster rate than in a traditional data centre. You’ll almost certainly use the same partner construction/installation company/in-house team, who will know both the overall data centre site and, more importantly, the design and build of the modules. There will also be cost-savings with a modular approach, as you’ll be using virtually ‘off-the-shelf’ components, rather than bespoke designs.

Still not convinced that the modular approach makes sense? Well, what about the flexibility and scalability of building out a data centre as and when you need extra capacity – pay-as-you-grow? Yes, you can build out a complete data centre on day one, but then you’ll be paying for a great deal of unused infrastructure and capacity. And, as outlined above, by the time you come to use some of this infrastructure, it will be out of date and maybe even cause something of a bottleneck to the overall data centre performance.

Much better to build only what you need within the data centre facility. For example, you can start with just a single cabinet, or maybe just one row of cabinets, and install the necessary infrastructure to support the IT load housed within the racks of these cabinets. As your company grows, you can then add more cabinets and the supporting infrastructure. It might take you several years to build out the overall data centre capacity. By taking the modular approach, you’ll save a great deal of money over this period when compared to building out on day one.

And there’s one more modular benefit to consider. What if you didn’t need to purchase a data centre facility, no matter how well you subsequently build it out, using a modular approach? Enter the colocation provider. They make the initial, often substantial, investment in building a data centre. So you don’t have to tie-up a lot of capital in purchasing a data centre which may well then stand half-empty, waiting for your business to grow.

You can start by taking as little as a rack, or maybe a cabinet, with many colos and they will charge you accordingly. As you need more data centre capacity, they can build this out for you – quickly and efficiently thanks to their modular template.

Maybe you only need some temporary extra capacity? Well, the colo can build out and provide this for you and then, once your project is finished, you can hand back this extra capacity. You’ll no longer have to pay for it (and the chances are that the colo will be able to re-purpose this extra capacity for another customer).

Flexibility and agility have become watchwords of the colocation sector. Even to the extent that, where once you’d be required to sign up to, and be charged for, a specific monthly power usage figure, whether or not you used this power, now more and more colos are only charging you for the power you use.

So, next time you make a visit to your data centre, make an honest assessment of how efficient is the layout, and how much of the infrastructure is being used at anywhere near full capacity. The more honest your assessment the more likely that you’ll appreciate the benefits of a modular approach and the more likely you’ll understand that owning and running data centre isn’t actually the core activity of your business and that, just as you trust utility companies to provide your electricity, telecoms and water (and only pay for what you use), it may well be time to trust a colo with your data centre. Modular doesn’t get any better than the colocation approach!