Modular data centers seem to be a hot topic these days, but to a large degree, much of the discussion is “modular-washing”. As a result, the importance of modularity, like the equally important “green data center” which was muted by “greenwashing”, is being lost.
By Michael Frank
With that said, let me explain what modularity means to me. A modular data center is one that uses prefabricated infrastructure or deploys standardized infrastructure in a modular fashion. That definition is general enough to be ripe for exploitation, and so it is being exploited. I mean, is anyone out there deploying their infrastructure or growing their data center in a way that couldn’t be considered modular?
From brick-and-mortar to containers
Interestingly, I see two primary camps on modular data centers. There are the “traditional” “brick-and-mortar” buildings – I’m doing a terrible injustice to some of the facilities out there with this description, but bear with me – and then there are the “containers”.
A lot of the initial discussion about modularity was from brick-and-mortar multi-tenant data center providers, including Internap. For us, modularity meant predictability for our customers. Each new phase of our data centers mirrored the data center experience that our customers were already enjoying. Modularity also created predictability from our vendors, designers, manufacturers, permitters and planners.
Modularity also meant speed in deployment at a lower cost, because it was the same plan executed over and over again. That’s exciting stuff to someone who has outsourced their data center needs to a third-party data center provider. But even the private data center providers recognized that predictability and speed were good things. At this point, any brick-and-mortar data center being built with scale in mind is likely being built with modularity as a key component. It’s still incredibly beneficial but about as exciting as N+1.
A container data center is the ultimate expression of a modular data center. It’s a steel box containing a bunch of compute equipment along with power and cooling management infrastructure (another gross oversimplification). As a result, each container is an operating data center. To grow the data center, you add another container. Super modular. But I haven’t seen this work in a multi-tenant environment, so in my opinion, this option is best suited for those who want to manage and operate their own infrastructure and who have relatively small, specialized needs.
Related: How Big Data Impacts Data Centers
Some might say that I have left out a newer modular solution. They see “container” within a “brick and mortar” as the ultimate expression of a modular data center. Providers who offer such solutions often talk about how they differ from containers by being purpose-built, integrated and user-friendly. While this is correct, it’s also “modular washing”. Less often, there is talk about how these solutions differ from a modern brick-and-mortar data center. That’s because the multi-tenant data center world has had those since the beginning. We call them cabinets, cages and suites.