Is this what future data centers will look like?

New breed of modular data centers are built quickly with flexibility in mind

A few years ago LexisNexis, a supplier of legal resources for lawyers around the country, needed to expand its West Coast presence. In the past, the way that Terry Williams would have handled such a task as vice president of managed technology solutions for the company would be to find a collocation provider, rent out some space, then buy servers and configure them. Even though a collocation facility provides the power, cooling and building infrastructure, Williams says it still take months to configure the system just the right way. Then, if changes are needed, either more space needs to be rented out or the system has to be reconfigured.

There had to be a better way, Williams thought.

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Williams found IO, a company specializing in modular data centers. The units made by IO in its Arizona factory are about the size of a tractor trailer truck container and are all built the same way. Customers like Williams buy the boxes, plug them in and fill them up with whatever technology equipment they like.

Unlike most collocation facilities though, IO’s modular data centers can change dynamically based on the needs of the workloads. Williams, for example, has set up some of his IO boxes to be for high-density workloads, which require extra power and cooling. Another section of the modular data center is for lower-density workloads, which doesn’t need the backup power capacity or as much cooling. IO’s modular data centers allow a single unit to support both environments, and be controlled by a software inside the systems that provide Williams with the flexibility to make changes whenever he needs to based on the capacity LexisNexis needs at the time.

“It’s hard for me to imagine someone actually going out and spending millions of dollars upfront on these large traditional data center build outs,” he says. “The modular approach just gives you so much more flexibility.” Williams says he spent more time thinking about whether he would go with a modular approach than the about 120 days it took between ordering the system and having it in production.

Williams believes these are the data centers of the future: Rows and rows of these modular units stacked next to each other, each one finely-tuned to the specific needs of the workloads running inside of it, and fully customizable based on the resources needed at the time.

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Is this how data centers will be built in tomorrow-land? Not everyone is quite as optimistic as Williams and modular data center manufacturers like IO, but Gartner data center analyst David Cappuccio says modular data centers are catching on in the market, after being around for more than a decade. “The first eight years, I didn’t get a single phone call from people asking about this approach,” he says. “In the last couple of years, interest has really picked up.”

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IO_Modular_Data_Center: IO makes tractor-trailer truck sized containers that can hold either 18, 36 or 50 racks of technology-agnostics servers. Some customers place the containers next to each other in rows and add more as their need for data center space grows.

Modular data centers offer some unique advantages for data center operators at large organizations. Most specifically, they are quick to deploy. “Instead of 15 to 20 months for a new data center build out, you can get more capacity in 15 to 20 weeks.” That’s quite appealing to a variety of customers. Colleges and universities that have grant-funded research and need capacity quickly can spin these units up. Organizations that have a lot of remote sites can deploy individual units across their organization and grow the capacity as needed by just adding another unit, if necessary. Hyper-scale data center operators have found a use for them as well.

Microsoft, for example, uses Dell modular data centers to roll out new capacity at some of its data centers based on customer demand for its services, Cappuccio says. The units come preconfigured with a couple thousand servers installed and ready to go; Microsoft plugs in the container and is off and running. IO provides just the container and customers source the materials for the inside. “The real driver here is if you need something quick,” Cappuccio says.

Williams, with LexisNexis, enjoys the flexibility they provide in granularly controlling the operations of the data center. High-density workloads can have redundant power supplies; a sandbox environment may get more power and cooling as the developers spin up and down resources. IO CIO George Slessman equates it to a home: On a hot summer day when you want to cool down a beer, you don’t crank up the air conditioning in your entire house – you put it in the refrigerator. In a modular data center, you don’t have to high-capacity cooling and double-sourced power supplies to the entire facility all the time, only the aspects that really need it.

IO.OS (IO Operating System) is the software interface for controlling which areas of the container get which resources, while also monitoring the system for anomalies in usage and alerting users of potential security breaches. “The data center has classically been a very dumb component of IT, it’s fundamentally been a building where the hardware sits,” Slessman says. Smart data centers design plus software designed to run it make these systems respond automatically to the needs of the organization. IO’s data centers can either be shipped to customer sites, or the company can host it at one of its campuses.

Cappuccio says the advent of modular units are part of a broader trend in the industry to have more responsive data center designs. “Data center design is finally catching up with reality,” he says. A similar system that has certain zones for high-density workloads with extra cooling and redundant power and be built within a traditional data center too; IO is just taking a container-based approach. He says typically there is not a major cost advantage compared to a regular build out because power and cooling infrastructure still have to be supplied to the unit, but he says discounts from manufacturers right now to entice customers into the market are making it an attractive pricing option. IO would not release specific pricing information for its units. IBM, HP and Dell each have modular data center boxes as well.

Modular data centers are expected to increasingly be used as a component in a broader data center build out strategy. A company may have a traditional-type data center, but perhaps one that is built with new design components that would take into account that some areas of the data centers need to be built to different specifications than others. The organization may use a cloud or managed hosting service as well for very dynamic workload needs, and a modular data center might be used for a remote site, for example. “People are beginning to realize there is a more efficient way to build these things,” Cappuccio says.

Network World senior writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing and social collaboration. He can be reached at BButler@nww.com and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW.

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