Buyer's guide: The case for modular data centres (Part 1)

The cost, carbon and capacity benefits that modular data centres can offer

In the world of IT few things conjure up an image of monolithic permanence more than the data centre. Row after row of rigid, reliable IT powering the flow of commerce and industry around the globe day and night. Rain, hail or snow. Year after year.

This article is the first of a two-part series on modular data centres.

So it is against this background that the emergence of the portable modular data centre (PMDC), also known as the containerised data centre, is one of the more interesting developments in the sector.

Starting out in converted shipping containers for easier transportation, these data centres were a response to the need for high-end computing in remote locations, such as mining sites, where networking latency or cost had previously ruled out accessing services via satellite or extended fibre links.

Savvy operators later developed PMDCs for urban and suburban use, cottoning on to the need to address the ongoing lack of floor space and power in the data centres in state capitals — Sydney in particular — and for use on major urban infrastructure projects.

These PMDCs, no longer housed in shipping containers, still retain the size and shape of freight containers but are far more amenable to customisation and Lego-like additions of further PMDCs.

And now, with natural disaster sadly seeming a monthly occurrence, the mobility and relatively fast construction time of PMDCs means that the need for computing in flood, fire or earthquake affected areas can now be addressed with a modular data centre.

“Fundamentally there are two reasons why a modular data centre is good in an earthquake,” Tier 5 managing director, Marty Gauvin, says. “They are shock mounted, so if you have got a modular data centre surrounded by a shed — provided that doesn’t burn down — you are better off having your equipment mounted in that than a traditional centre.

“They’re also portable, so whether you want to take your data centre out of a disaster area to somewhere which has power, or if you want to take a data centre into an area so you have access to computing resources more quickly, you can do it much quicker than a traditional data centre.”

According to Gauvin, who has taken Dell’s modular data centre and added his own tweaks, the deployment of the average data centre is nine months. In comparison, the prototype Tier 5 has been testing with Dell in recent months is deployable from an empty vessel to a fully operational data centre inside three weeks. The company is now working on a unit deployable inside a week.

But, Gauvin says, the application of PMDCs is far more broad than the niche use of disaster relief logistics. The ability of the form factor to address some of the shortage of data centre space in Australia is a major selling point.

“The requirement for data centre space grows at 13 per cent a year, and the supply of data centre space increases at eight per cent a year, so it is that gap which makes [PMDCs] attractive,” he says.

Gauvin says the demand for data centre space has actually been suppressed by a lack of supply. As a result, true demand for space is being hidden by organisations trying to squeeze more kit into existing space and/or through attempts to extend the life of their current facilities.

Gauvin argues that PMDCs may well be a way to do some myth-busting, too. Primarily, that data centres must be built in the CBD because that’s where the head office typically is located and where power is cheapest.

“Going around the US recently with my team I concluded that neither of those is true — people build data centres where their geeks are,” he says. “There is a far stronger data centre market in San Francisco than there is in New York, despite the fact there is a 10 to one ratio of head offices. Therefore there is scope to increase data centre penetration outside of the primary cities.

“The only market in Australia where data centre supply and demand works is Sydney, but it certainly doesn’t have cheap power and it has a lack of geeks, or certainly they are more expensive.”

Click here for part two.

Follow Tim Lohman on Twitter: @Tlohman

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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