Modularized or Container-Based Data Centers

I reported that container-based data centers are gaining some attention these days. At the recent DatacenterDynamics in San Francisco, Andreas Zoll of i/o Data Centers gave a talk on the modularization of data centers. What is the relationship between modularization and containers? Modularization is a broader category than containers; a container is one example of modularization. Actually, data centers have been constructed with customized components because each data center is different. As I tour more data centers, I find that is true for somewhat old ones. But at the same time, newer constructions attempt to use standardized components. Standardized components could allow the whole data center to be constructed cheaper because they could become a commodity, and the entire data center structure could be standardized, regardless of location and requirements.


Andreas Zoll

Zoll started his talk by giving the current status of data centers, which was not surprising to those of us who keep track of their trends and challenges. These are some of his key points:

  • Continuing growth of densities (for computing, power, and cooling)
  • Cooling requirements and focus
  • High capex and opex
  • Right-sizing hard

Container data centers could address most of those trends and challenges. He made these points:

  • Rapid scalability
  • Capex in line with actual demand
  • Geographically agnostic
  • Higher efficiency
  • Repeatable
  • Flexible

One of his slides shows the history of container-based data centers:

Container-based data center progression

He defined three generations of container data centers.

Generation 1:

  • Box containing servers
  • Vendor lock-in
  • Niche audience only

Generation 2:

  • Variety of cooling options
  • Vendor-neutral configurations
  • Customizable
  • Not self-contained but requiring several vendors

Generation 3 (next generation that is not yet on the market):

  • Purpose-built
  • Open architecture
  • Fully integrated
  • Tailored for redundancy
  • Maintainable
  • Location agnostic
  • Automated
  • Internationally plug-and-play
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Data Center Projects: Project Management
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Some people asked him to elaborate on his last point about the second generation and full integration in the third generation. The current generation of container comes either with IT equipment that has some power and cooling inlets or with power and cooling equipment. HP (IT equipment) teamed up with Active Power (power) to provide a whole solution. Dell’s version comes as a double-decker: the bottom is IT equipment storage and the top is a power and cooling box.

Regardless of configuration, power and cooling should be available as a modularized unit to hook the container up to the building. This reminds me of the fourth generation data center proposed by Microsoft.

What you can do with each container is limited. You still have to hook your container up to power and cooling before you put it into operation. So the entire data center should be designed to provide modularized power and cooling. How soon can you do that? It is a good idea, but I wonder how doable it is now.

While people were buzzing with this question, a VP came on stage and said i/o Data Centers would announce their latest container-based solution in two to three weeks. I suppose it will be the third generation. They planned the session well. They well knew that people would ask what "fully integrated” meant and that they would announce their new solution. That was very clever. We will see if their new solution is as good as their session planning.

Zen Kishimoto

About Zen Kishimoto

Seasoned research and technology executive with various functional expertise, including roles in analyst, writer, CTO, VP Engineering, general management, sales, and marketing in diverse high-tech and cleantech industry segments, including software, mobile embedded systems, Web technologies, and networking. Current focus and expertise are in the area of the IT application to energy, such as smart grid, green IT, building/data center energy efficiency, and cloud computing.

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