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Is this what future data centers will look like?

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

By , Network World
June 06, 2013 11:42 AM ET

Network World - 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.”

image alt text
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.

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