Modular data centers have been around for a few years now, but they are much different than they were just a few years ago. The Blackbox was the mysterious sounding name that Sun Microsystems gave its first containerized offering in 2006. Today, you’re much more likely to see a polished marketing phrase, such as the HP EcoPOD, used to describe a company’s containerized data center product. Modular data centers have gone from a few racks packed into a corrugated shipping container to all-in-one, custom-built proprietary modules. Hewlett-Packard, and others that have recently entered the modular data center market, are betting that containerized data centers will become more mainstream–and there are good reasons why they might be right. Improved energy efficiency and better access for technicians servicing components in modular designs are catching the attention of companies that once gave modular data centers no more than a passing glance.
But increased interest in modular data centers is also being driven by increased data center capacity. A recent Uptime Institute survey showed that 36% of data centers will run out of space or cooling capacity in the next year. Unfortunately, data center facilities have proven over the years to be largely incapable of keeping up with changing technology and growing computing needs. Higher densities are stressing the cooling infrastructure of many data centers, and there’s no guarantee that improvements made today will be enough to support future needs. By the time a state-of-the-art data center is designed, built and brought online, it will likely already have fallen behind the rapid pace of changing technology and design standards. This makes it more difficult to justify many millions of dollars for a new data center build, especially when manufacturers of containerized data centers claim their products are more energy efficient than a custom-built facility. A modular data center can add capacity to an existing environment in a matter of weeks, instead of the several years it would take to design or build an addition or new facility.
Today, many companies’ views on containerized data centers can be compared to public school officials’ perceptions on modular classrooms–shortsighted stopgap measures that waste money when compared to new builds. The difference is that the basic needs of students will remain virtually unchanged for the next 10 years, while the cooling and power needs of servers will likely be much different a decade from now.
However, a containerized approach may not be right for everyone. Even though a containerized approach is easily portable, data center owners can’t just drop a container in a vacant parking lot and expect it will meet their needs and remain secure. The issue of support can also be a problem for some companies where the computing platform offered by the modular container’s vendor is unfamiliar to IT staff.
In the near future, companies such as HP can’t expect to solve all problems with containerized data centers or change the industry perception that they are short-term solutions, but they can try to soften the prejudice against them. Branding a container as being energy efficient gives it appeal that many traditional data centers don’t have. As more companies look for solutions to their growing demands, the energy efficiency and simplicity of containerized data centers will look more appealing. The uncomfortable truth is that we don’t know what the needs of a data center will be 10-20 years from now, which makes the flexibility and scalability of containers an attractive options to many companies. When a modular data center is in need of a refresh, it can simply be replaced at the end of the lease.
Already, some industries are beginning to look favorably at containers. Internet-based companies that sometimes see explosive growth in computing needs can turn to modular data centers to keep up with rapidly changing capacity needs. Companies like Amazon are using containers to support cloud computing platforms.
Modular design will undoubtedly have a place in future data centers. The question is whether future developments in containerized design and technology will emerge to address the real and perceived disadvantages that are holding it back today.