Modular datacentres are becoming increasingly popular when it comes to providing a fast-to-build and deliver datacentre facility. Most modular datacentres are based on either a 20foot or 40foot ISO shipping container that has been salvaged and refurbished for the purpose. These large metal containers are already designed for trailer (and onboard ship) transportation and originally harsh environments in industries including mining, oil & gas and the military services.
When it comes to a modular datacentre it is important to focus on the fit-out and advantages rather than the fact that the metal box may have originally been designed and used as a shipping container. The fit-out itself will take the same level of planning as a regular datacentre building and can be designed to operate as Tier 1-4 rated design (Uptime Institute).
Many aspects of a modular datacentre are now pre-fabricated including skids and modules designed for the fit-out and overall purpose including the critical aspects of power, cooling, IT server cabinets and security. Modularity as a concept allows for a standardised design that many of the mega-datacentre operators have already adopted as it allows them to scale operations rapidly. This is most notable for web-cloud service providers like Amazon who can roll out additional datacentre capacity based on the modular concept within weeks rather than the months it can take for a traditional datacentre building.
All a modular datacentre needs at site. is a prepared concrete plinth and the necessary power and data cable hook-up points. Once delivered to site, the datacentre can be connected and commissioned within hours of arrival. Of course, factory acceptance tests (FATs) and site acceptance test (SATs) can be carried out on each individual system component and the entire modular building.
Whilst space can be a limiting factor and consideration when choosing between a fixed or modular datacentre, the pre-built approach can also help to solver other problems on site. Modular datacentres also provide many other benefits. They can be used to expand existing datacentre capacity where it is costly in terms of money and time to go through a formal planning and design process. This can help existing datacentre owners and operators to improve their total cost of ownership (TCO) as they leverage more from their existing datacentre and IT assets.
Modular datacentres can also be used to provide temporary facilities to sites that require this. Scenarios can include maintenance or decommissioning projects. Existing facilities can be refurbished or decommission with the modular datacentre used as a temporary measure or as the primary ongoing facility. Prefabricated modular datacentres can also provide a use for disaster recover and business continuity plans.
Modular is just one term that is used to describe these types of datacentre. Other terms include containerised for obvious reasons or self-contained, pods and even mobile and portable. Whatever the term used, the modular datacentre will comprise of a range of systems and prefabricated components.
The first points to identify are the core functional elements cover power, cooling and IT. These have a direct bearing on the fit-out in terms of LV switchboard and switchgear arrangements, UPS systems (size and modular or mono-block), battery types (rack or cabinet), automatic transfer switch (ATS) arrangement and overall design resilience required. In terms of cooling, the choices range from indirect or free air cooling, chiller or DX plant, computer room air handlers (CRAHs), ducting and venting. Whilst the IT is normally on the client side, consideration must be given to server cabinet population and fixing, as well as other component such as overall power distribution, data cabling, security and access, lighting, environmental monitoring and fire suppression systems.
Another aspect that modular provides is the ability to scale. A datacentre site that uses a single modular datacentre may also plan for additional containers to be installed at site later. As well as space on prepared plinths, these additional datacentre facilities will also require power and cable access points.
Other factors to consider are the same as what we call a fixed enterprise or co-location datacentre and relate to power availability. For any datacentre, the maximum supply rating limits the overall size a datacentre facility can grow to. Related to this is the provision for uninterruptible power supplies and standby power generators. Each modular datacentre may have its own UPS system built-into the container for the critical or overall loads. The site itself may also provide a single or N+x configured standby power generating set for additional backup time.
Most modular datacentre installations don’t require planning permission or any on-site building. In terms of design and specification, the containerised approach can provide a lower cost route to a higher specification than a ‘bricks and mortar’ approach. The modular approach can also ensure a high TCO level as the building can be transported to a new location as the business needs change.
Another aspect to consider for any containerised building is the structural warranty and finish. After all, the building will be housing a high investment in servers and support systems. Most clients will specify a structural warranty time frame and lifetime management characteristics they require in addition to any final paint and environmental requirements.
Modular and prefabricated datacentres may not be right for every enterprise or co-location company but the benefit provided do mean that there is growing interest in the concept. The overall design philosophy can save organisations time and cost in terms of roll-out and start-up. Overall costs can be reduced for clients operating in leased buildings and energy efficiency improved dramatically when used to replace legacy based datacentre environments with lower than required power usage effectiveness (PUE) ratios or even operational Tier-level. Modular datacentres can also open previously unattractive brownfield sites and older warehouse facilities that would require a large capital investment to convert for fixed building usage.
As with uninterruptible power supplies, the modular concept is one with a growing momentum and this means that there are an increasing number of projects and installations. This trend will continue and drive innovation in the area and hopefully to the point where the fact that the original metal box started life as a shipping container design is fast forgotten.