Buyer's guide: The case for modular data centres (Part 2)

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. 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.

This article is part two of a two-part series on modular data centres. Read part one here

One organisation literally banking on the notion that data centre space in CBDs will continue to be at a premium is Verb IT, which has partnered with HP for its version of the PMDC, the Performance-Optimised Datacentre or POD. According to the company’s co-director, Chris Clifford, deploying HP’s kit is a means for it to very rapidly scale up its data centre availability, which it will then on-sell as a part of Verb IT’s wider managed services offering.

Verb IT deliberately implemented a POD due to a very tight break-even point for the data centre business of just 12 months. So, being able to begin relatively cheaply and scale up quickly were the priorities.

“Because it is modular, from a commercial and financial perspective, you are not forking out $10 million or $20 million upfront, you can do that in stages,” he says. “You can capacity plan as you bring customers on and keep adding to it, and, as we did it in 16 weeks, we know we can add PODs in that time frame and extend the business as it grows.”

Another attraction of the POD was the high density offered — 27kw of power per rack across 10 racks. The one 20-foot container also contains the equivalent of 500sqm of traditional data centre space.

Clifford says that may not initially sound like much, but once you bring blade servers and virtualisation into the picture, things go exponential.

“What it converts to is usually 90 to 120 blade servers in the one rack,” he says. “With virtualisation… that gives us a conversion of literally thousands of servers running off the one rack.”

Carbon considerations

Consistent with the wider data centre sector’s focus on reducing carbon emissions — a trend given yet more impetus by the carbon tax — PMDCs are also being used as a means of dramatically cutting CO2 output. Victoria University associate director IT enterprise services, Zoran Sugarevski, says along with the usual cost considerations the decision to go modular —with IBM’s scalable modular data centre — was heavily informed by the organisation’s sustainable environment, waste reduction and carbon emission goals.

“The university has a focus for anything we do to be aligned to its sustainability program,” he says. “We were finding it hard to find suppliers with Green credentials and who could show how they were contributing to cutting Green emission in the state.”

Sugarevski says the university wanted to prove that its move to a PMDC would indeed have Green benefits, so it took the step of having Sustainability Victoria write up a case study and an assessment to confirm savings from its new data centre were being materialised.

The findings were that the new PMDC delivered a power utilisation effectiveness (PUE) rating of 1.3 compared to the traditional data centre’s rating of 2.3. PUE is the ratio of kilowatts coming into a data centre facility divided by the kilowatts going toward powering IT equipment.

In power terms, Sugarevski says this translates to roughly 55 per cent of the energy required to run the university’s primary Footscray Park Melbourne data centre facility.

Part of the secret to PMDC’s greater efficiency is its being a sealed environment, but it also comes down to innovative features, such as the use of free cooling.

“The way it works is that when the outside air in Melbourne reaches a certain temperature range, the actual air conditioning in the data centre stops and the units mounted in the top of the container cool the water that is used to flow through the air in the data centre,” he says. “It is one of the features that makes it cost effective.”

Tier 5’s Gauvin also stresses the PUE benefits of PMDCs and their ability to use a range of additional cooling methods, such as chilled water and evaporative cooling. However, he adds that a newer measure, carbon utilisation effectiveness, or CUE, is also important.

“What we’re doing is looking to run modular data centres off of a co-generation power plant — effectively power generation on site which runs off natural gas,” he says.

“Natural gas produces half the carbon emissions of average power generation in Australia so we are halving the power usage, then halving the carbon output. So overall we are 25 per cent the carbon output of a normal data centre.”

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Private Cloud

Verb IT’s Clifford says that, unsurprisingly, many organisations are struggling to come to grips with the Cloud and are searching for ways to develop private Clouds as a tentative first step.

“A facility like this gives them a stepping stone through infrastructure as a service, as they still have access to hardware,” he says. “They may not have it on site but they can iLO [Integrated Lights Out remote manage]. They can still access the services, provision their own virtual machines and Cloud link from here if they want.

“It seems to be far better to give people layers one to three on the old ISO layer and enable systems integrators or customers themselves to provision that Cloud out from here.”

Tier 5’s Gauvin also says PMDCs can be viewed as a means to dabble in the private Cloud; at the very least, as a way to tie their IT spend more closely to value creation.

“If I am a Commonwealth Bank and am going to build a $100 million data centre that will last me 25 years and I have to pay for that now, that is likely to be seen by the board as a cost,” he says.

“Whereas, if you can deploy a private Cloud, why not then look at it from the point of view of how you buy your DC capacity? If I can buy 12 racks at a time it won’t be stuck among everyone else’s racks. These are my racks and I have control over them and can get them designed to my specification, but I don’t have to buy them all at once; I don’t have to buy the next 25 years of capacity in one go.

“So, it is not just demand for private Cloud; it is data centre construction that is aligned to the cost model of private Cloud which makes this pretty attractive.”

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