Is it time for a major change in the modular data centre market? Matt Goulding, managing director at Cannon Technologies, explains why he thinks it is:
Putting a digital phone exchange (PBX) back in the 1970s and 80s into an ISO shipping container so that, in the case of a disaster like fire or flood, it could be dropped onto a container lorry and be delivered to the disaster site in a matter of a few hours, was a brilliant idea.
20 years on and doing the same with a mini-data centre is also a great idea.
As a mobile ‘disaster recovery data centre’ the ISO container can be carried on an every day lorry over every day roads. No special permits, no escorts and definitely no need to close roads or remove lampposts and other street furniture.
Trying to use this technique to spread the CapEx cost of data centres on a ‘pay-as-you-grow’ model meant the bad points sometimes outweighed the good. ISO containers were not designed for racks, so the dimensions are not ideal. You can squeeze up to 19 racks in, but there isn’t room for full size aisles front and rear.
You could mount each cabinet on a little railway track allowing it to be shunted forwards (for rear access) and backwards (to access the front). But it is not only the racks that need to move. Cables and pipes such as relatively fragile fibres, copper Ethernet cables that aren’t designed to be flexed and, in some cases, pipes for in-row or in-rack heat exchangers, require flexible trunking systems that can move with the racks.
This not only makes these rail-track equipped ISO containers expensive, but you can only grow your data centre by adding more containers. The result is a cost premium that significantly negates the delivery of a pay-as-you-grow approach. This is why the ISO container hasn’t really caught on as a mainstream data centre construction practise.
Modular is essential
Having a modular approach to data centre building is essential because the conventional bricks-and-mortar approach is far too capital intensive and front-loaded.
Even if you acquire your building but only do a partial fit-out, you’ve still had to purchase or rent a building large enough for its ten-year capacity. That means for the majority of the time, you’re effectively paying for thousands of square meters of unused space.
This is not the only wastage. You are also paying for the power utility feeds and generators specified for the ultimate capacity, in addition to the annual costs such as rates, insurance, building maintenance etc. In an age of shrinking data centre budgets, this just doesn’t make good business sense.
All this shows why a cost-effective, pay-as-you-grow solution to data centre construction is something of a Holy Grail.
ISO containers are not the only available modular solution. A growing number of vendors now provide large containers or pre-fabricated data centre buildings. These can be pre-built and sometimes pre-staged in the factory – but getting them to site is cumbersome and expensive.
Large sections require ‘wide load’ permits and escorted transport. Road closures and the removal of street lights or other street furniture adds to the cost. At their destination, heavy cranes are required to lift them into place.
Internally these systems tend to have annoying support pillars which interfere with ideal rack layouts. Just like the ISO container most systems are a fixed width and can only be extended length-wise and by another large module, so the pay-as-you-grow is not very granular.
Many of these ‘modular’ data centre approaches still require a building around them – being internal structures rather than buildings in their own right.
This almost brings the worst of all worlds. You can use a low grade industrial building, but you’ve still got to acquire or lease enough space for your ultimate capacity. You also need the expensive ‘modules’ so again the business model isn’t a compelling one for most companies wanting to build a new data centre or extend an existing one.
The solution is a modular building system that can grow in small increments. Start with one rack width and grow, rack by rack, based on six or twelve month forecasts. As you grow in such small increments, you can adapt the shape of the data centre to meet the shape and design of the building.
Cannon Technologies have been delivering precisely this type of modular system for over twenty years. Initially a telecoms product, it is now being targeted at data centres.
With data centre requirements changing so frequently, estimating three or ten years ahead is art not science. The restrictions on budgets means this approach is not only fiscally responsible it makes good business sense.