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Modular Data Centers Best Suited For SMBs

The typical data center was designed for finicky mainframes, but in the age of robust virtualized servers--not to mention economic considerations--many organizations are opting to tweak the data centers they have, according to the InformationWeek Analytics State of the Data Center Survey. Many are considering new data center designs rather than dealing with the cost and difficulty of retrofitting an outdated facility, says the report's author, Kenneth Miller, principal at IT and business consulting practice Thinx.

Fifty-four percent of the business technology professionals responding to the survey say resource demands in their facilities are increasing. But only 29% say their budgets will grow compared with last year. "It's the proverbial rock and a hard place," notes Miller. As a result, the vast majority of IT organizations "aim to squeeze efficiencies out of their existing facilities," he says. Consolidation, virtualization and new hardware are the methods that will be used to meet usage demands while also managing costs.

"Server consolidation and virtualization is far and away the strategy most adopted to address increasing resource demands in the data center," he says, with 78% of respondents saying they are virtualizing and consolidating servers. The second most popular strategy is to upgrade legacy IT equipment, because older gear is usually energy hungry. New power and cooling systems are a distant third because of the high capital investment and the challenges of upgrading a production data center.

Only 16% are constructing new facilities outright, according to the report. But when companies do need to consider new data centers, another consideration is the modular approach. Miller says this is an attractive solution "when time to construct is a concern. In a typical facility delivery, even if you're very aggressive with your design and build schedules, [a new data center] can still be a multiyear project." Modular data center projects can be set up and configured in much shorter timeframes--around the order of three to nine months, he says. "That assumes you have the infrastructure in place to support the modularity," for power and cooling systems, as well as the fiber and communications needed to support the data center, he adds.

Another driver is when a large-scale organization is looking for repeatability, meaning creating what Miller calls "generic cookie-cutter data center components." He adds, "If you are a super large scale, there could be some manufacturing economies of scale, but those aren't advantages an individual purchaser of modular data centers would see.'' Companies need to understand the time and money related to their data center investment, Miller says. "Typically, the modular solutions are not as cost-effective as the same amount of traditional build that's built all at once."

Miller also cautions that the terms "modular" or "modularity" can either mean a repeatable standard construction design or what he calls containerized data center options, and IT executives need to be clear about what the vendor offering is. "Different vendors have built data centers in the back of semi tractor trailers or standardized shipping containers and ... deliver those components to a site on a truck that are ready to plug in with IT equipment" and require no construction. Modular data center options are almost all prebuilt conditions, much like a trailer home just needs to be hooked up to water and electric service.

Modular data centers are an emerging market area because the concept addresses demands for specific conditions, but they are targeted more at SMBs, says Miller. "It will be a long time before medium- to large-scale data centers are fully modular solutions. From a facilities perspective, there's a lack of standards and ... interoperability of construction elements. I see this for the SMB market or a company in a massive time crunch for growth scaling."

A month ago, infrastructure and construction contractor Skanska USA unveiled what it is calling one of the most efficient, greenest data centers in the world, The TELUS Intelligent Internet DataCenter. The first vendor to deliver a portable data center, Project Blackbox, was Sun Microsystems, now Oracle's hardware arm, in 2006. HP got into the modular data center business two years ago with its Performance Optimized Data Centers (PODs), while Cisco entered a "crowded" portable data center market last May, joining HP, Dell, IBM, Rackspace and Oracle.