Modular & Containerized Data Centers

Key Points
- There are many different approaches to modular data centers, from single modules to full data centers in a container.
- Any situation that requires a remote and/or temporary, fully enclosed facility is a potential fit for modular or containerized data centers.
- Containerized data centers are great for edge use cases where resources are needed closer to customer locations.
- Modular may not help with consolidation or the cloud, but it will still find a place in the overall market.

Modular is a major buzzword in the technology world today because everyone wants to believe that the equipment and devices they buy have an assured future. The idea is being used in the smartphone industry now as many vendors are trying to build phones that are more easily upgraded through the use of interchangeable parts and modules. And data center designers are applying the same concept to building data centers with the hope that it will be easier to upgrade them with plug-and-play infrastructure as more or fewer resources are needed.

However, when it comes to modular data centers, the basic modular design concept isn’t the only game in town. In fact, quite a few vendors, including IBM, Flexenclosure, Schneider Electric, Dell, Emerson, BladeRoom, and Baselayer Technology, just to name a few, offer what are considered modular, containerized data centers. These providers essentially build and deliver prefabricated data center structures that are approximately the same size as shipping containers—but can vary through customization—packed with physical infrastructure and essentially serve as portable data center facilities.

Liz Cruz, Associate Director, IHS Markit

“I think there’s positive growth, but I just think a good thing to think about is what portion of the IT load will containerized data centers account for five or 10 years from now? . . . [By] 2020, I have it forecast to be 2.3% of the install base. My forecasts don’t go out further than that, but I wouldn’t say it’s ever going to be more than 5%. After this many years, in a time when the initial investment is so important, it’s still more expensive than a traditional build. No supplier in good conscience can tell me that it’s ever going to get less or even competitively priced with a traditional build. That’s a big factor. If it’s more expensive, then it’s always going to be a major handicap.”

Modular data centers, and specifically the containerized variety, were first introduced about 10 years ago when larger companies such as Google started using traditional container-sized units almost like “giant racks where they could ship in huge loads of servers at a time,” says Liz Cruz, associate director at IHS Markit. They were often used in more niche applications until over the past five years or so when more use cases opened up for temporary data center installations and even facilities used for disaster recovery.

Cruz points out that there is quite a bit of variety in terms of the sizes and functions of these containerized data centers, but that a large segment of the market is moving toward custom enclosures that are typically larger than shipping containers. At the same time, some vendors offer containers that are essentially closet-sized power systems designed for remote areas with little or no access to grid-based energy sources; Flexenclosure’s eSite containers are an example of this. And then you have products like those from BladeRoom where there are a series of separate container modules that can be essentially “ganged together to form what looks more like a traditional data center,” Cruz explains.

Baselayer Edge modules are specifically designed for HPC (high-performance computing) use cases and can be deployed both indoors and outdoors.

Potential Use Cases
Needless to say, there is a great deal of variety in the modular data center space, but that doesn’t mean you can find something for every possible use case. There is certainly a lot of potential in this market, but modular data centers must be used in the right situations and for the right reasons to be effective. For example, organizations such as the Red Cross are tasked with entering a region reeling from a recent disaster and setting up a temporary data center nearby so they have the resources needed to help; this is a perfect example of a situation in which a modular data center can be extraordinarily helpful. The same idea applies in the military, which may need to place a data center in a remote region for a couple of years rather than investing in a more permanent structure. But, in addition to these kinds of temporary installations, there are indeed more permanent use cases, especially in areas where space is limited.

“Some of the best examples are hospitals,” says Cruz. “The indoor space is at such a premium for the a hospital. Their building space could be used for beds for patients, which is revenue-generating. They don’t want to be using that space for a data center, which isn’t a revenue-generating endeavor for them,” but rather a necessary part of doing business. For hospitals, Cruz continues, “it makes more sense to put a data center out in the parking lot and spend a little bit more up front in order to free up that space indoors,” thereby saving indoor space for their primary business of serving patients.

As we’ve mentioned, containerized data centers aren’t for everyone, and Cruz will be the first to admit that “it’s unlikely someone who hasn’t thought about modular at this point is going to completely redo their data center architecture and turn it into a containerized data center. Still, there are other unique use cases that pop up from time to time to illustrate the versatility and importance of modular, containerized data centers.

One example is that of a man who purchased an old manufacturing facility in Chicago and wanted to retrofit it into a data center only to find out that he couldn’t maximize space utilization without being a bit creative. “There was a courtyard area where the walls were too low and he couldn’t put a roof over the courtyard because the historical society wouldn’t let him, so there was all of this wasted space that he couldn’t put a roof over, which he obviously needed to protect his servers,” says Cruz. “So, instead, he was just going to put some containerized data centers out there. A majority of the data center would be traditionally built, but there would be a few out there in the courtyard. This is another reason to just keep containerized in the back of your mind as an option because it might come into play sometime and be a useful solution.”

The BladeRoom modular data center is system is designed so that you can connect multiple modules to one another, whether they are meant to handle IT load or for cooling, and configure them so they look and operate similarly to a traditional data center.

Cruz notes that while there is so much potential and opportunity for growth in the modular and containerized data center market, the segment is never likely to make a huge dent in the overall data center market. In fact, by 2020, she doesn’t see modular data centers making up more than 3% of the overall data center install base. However, one of the reasons why the market is poised for high growth (aside from the fact that by virtue of being a small market, any growth could result in high percentage gains) is due to the growth of edge data centers in general.

Edge data centers are intended to be placed closer to customers in order to improve performance and user experience, but at the same time these data centers aren’t infrastructure powerhouses meant to handle an overabundant server load. Cruz says one of the drawbacks of containerized data centers is the inherent “discomfort of serviceability” because there isn’t much room to move around inside of them, but that doesn’t matter as much in an edge data center setting.

For an example of the usefulness of modular and containerized data centers, look no further than Pokemon Go. The creator of that app, Niantic, so greatly underestimated demand that when the game went online the company almost instantly encountered major server shortage issues. Because containerized data centers can be deployed so quickly almost anywhere, they could have been used in this scenario to help handle some of the load in the regions that needed it most. And that leads directly into another reason why the market is growing, especially when it comes to edge data centers, and why more vendors are jumping in.

“A lot of the building of edge data centers will be done by the telecommunication and network carriers, which have already been using containerized modular solutions for their network and telecommunications equipment,” says Cruz. “They weren’t containerized data centers. It was just shipments of modules with network and telco equipment, so companies like Emerson are trying to move more into the containerized data center side have a strong business already with network equipment so it’ll be a natural transition.”

Flexenclosure’s eSite hybrid power systems are designed for use in telecommunications and other industries where 100% network uptime is a must even in remote areas where access to grid-based power is challenging or unavailable.

Not Necessarily A Competitor To Cloud Or An Aid To Consolidation
You might be taking a look at containerized data centers and thinking maybe they would be a good solution for consolidation, or even for moving assets to the cloud, but that isn’t necessarily true. For one, containerized data centers are more expensive than traditional builds. “No supplier in good conscience can tell me that it’s ever going to get less or even competitively priced with a traditional build,” says Cruz. That’s a big factor, because if it’s more expensive, then it’s always going to be a major handicap.” And when it comes to the cloud, containerized data centers simply won’t help companies achieve the goals they have in mind with a typical cloud migration.

“In the way that we’re talking about modular data centers, I don’t think there’s really a competition with cloud,” says Cruz. “Cloud [involves] a company saying, ‘I’m going to outsource everything. I’m no longer going to own the servers or the infrastructure.’ They are basically completely outsourcing their data center management. They’re not looking to have anything to do with the operation of their data center anymore. With a containerized data center,” Cruz adds, “all you’ve outsourced is the design. Once it’s delivered to you, you still have to manage it just as you would a regular data center. I don’t think of cloud so much as a competitor for containerized data centers.”

And therein lies the limiting factor regarding growth in the modular data center market. More and more companies are moving toward colocation and cloud computing to get out of the internal infrastructure business, because many of them only got into the data center game because it was the only way for them to run the business in the past. Today, companies have more options than ever before when it comes to offerings via SaaS (software as a service), managed services, and cloud computing generally. And, in fact, that’s where much of the data center dollars will be going in the coming years.

“Most of the future data center building that we’re anticipating is coming from cloud and colocation builders, which benefit from economies scale,” says Cruz. “You lack that with containerized data centers, because you’re turning everything into a unit.” Cruz says “there are a few cases here and there” where colocation providers have adopted containerized data centers, “but it’s looking less like a regular solution for them. If these guys aren’t doing it, it’s not going to be the be all, end all.”

Still, Cruz projects growth up to 2.3% by 2020, and she sees more potential for growth in the future, even if it won’t ever top more than perhaps 5% of total data center IT load. This helps illustrate that while it may not be a huge market or even a major mainstream one, there is still a place for modular data centers and containerized data centers. As with any other technology, you simply have to look at the fundamentals of what you’re trying to achieve as a business and determine whether or not modular data centers fit into those plans.

Why Go Modular?

When you hear about modular data centers, your mind may not immediately go to prefabricated containers, but rather the general concept of modular design. The important thing to remember is that modular design is an overarching philosophy to building data centers that focuses on the ability to easily replace pieces of equipment and to scale up or scale down as necessary by essentially plugging new servers, storage solutions, and other systems into the facility as needed.

Liz Cruz, associate director with IHS Markit, says “you can’t argue that the mentality of building in a modular fashion is almost universally adopted now” and she doesn’t “think anyone would decide to build out an entire data center that they think will suit them for the next 20 years up front anymore.” But the same idea doesn’t necessarily apply to modular and containerized data centers, which often have highly specialized use cases and aren’t meant to be permanent data centers fixtures.

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