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Is it time to Reconsider the Modular Data Centre?

By Matt Gurr, Associate at Aurecon, Sydney, Australia

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Matt Gurr, Associate at Aurecon, Sydney, Australia

It has been a few years since the datacenter market last saw a big push to move from the traditional business model of custom builddata centerfacilities towards facilities that are built using modular construction techniques. Both custom built data centers and modular ones can be very efficient, but modular data centers pose a unique set of benefits, such as the ability to construct a facility within a shorter amount of time, cutting capital costs substantially and enabling clients to tap into a global pool of niche, data center design skills.

One of the problems is that ‘modular data centers’ mean different things to different people. A modular data center could be a large, multi-megawatt site where different discrete modules are used to house the white space, power and cooling systems of the facility. It could also be a small containerized system with integrated power protection and cooling suitable for rapid deployment of a few racks.

"A modular data center could be a large, multi-megawatt site where different discrete modules are used to house the white space, power and cooling systems of the facility."

There is, however, one thing that modular data centers have in common: the construction of the facility is shifted away from the physical location. During the build,highly trained and experienced technicians are used for installation and testing, improving reliability and quality control on assemblies.

The majority of the workforce, including designers, engineers, facility managers and the factory workers who are constructing the modular elements, plan and construct the data center away from the physical site. It is only during thefinal inter-connection and Integrated Systems Testingthat a small team of specialists will be located on site to finalize the installation and to ensure that the system is working as expected.

Efficient and successful data centers can be built using either a traditional approach or a modular solution. The routea client takes when deciding on the type of build, will depend on their unique situation and needs.

For remote sites and locations where access to skilled local labour is limited, a substantially modular solution reduces the risk of poor installation quality by bringing the majority of the installation to a central hub of trained installers, it reduces delays due to failures or

mis-provisioning of equipment by building close to the supply chain source and ensures high reliability is maintained through robust construction and testing in a controlled environment.

Reductions in project deployment time are also frequently cited as a key benefit of modular solutions. In this instance, site preparation and module construction can be scheduled simultaneously, reducing the overall construction time as well as the time needed to install the various modules.The potential impact of weather on construction activityis also reduced seeing as the modules are generally constructed in an internal controlled factory environment.

The question remains: why aren’t modular construction methods being used for most new data center builds if it offers such clear cost and quality benefits?

With the exception of large data center operators, the cost of developing a custom modular solution is beyond the cost appetite of most organizations, forcing them to rely on pre-engineered solutions. This one size fits all approach can limit the flexibility and customization capability of a data center, forcing users to amend their IT strategies to accommodate the data center rather than the facility being driven by the needs of the organization. As many modular solutions are provided by overseas suppliers, the percentage of project cost that is subject to exchange rate fluctuation is larger than traditional projects, which can also have a large impact on carefully prepared cost plans.

Location also limits the benefits of modularity. With open, green-field sites, limitations in flexibility are unlikely to be a problem, but integrating a standard modular solution into a complex restricted site can limit the usage of the space. This is particularly true for inner city data centers where land costs are high andcustomized multi-storey buildings increase yield.

While a modular solution can be well suited to deployment in remote locations, care and consideration needs to be given to the portability and transportation methodology of the selected option. If a large module is selected, you may encounter high shipping costs for non-standard freight, road closure issues for outsize road transportation or even difficulties with access to your site.

There are some aspects of a datacenter build that cannot be modularized regardless of the location of selected solution. Negotiations with authorities for power and water supply, connections into local infrastructure, and preparation of the site for civil works are just a few examples that need to be factored into any delivery program as they will certainly push out the delivery of a project, regardless of the delivery time of the modular element.

It is worth remembering that modularity does not have to be an all or nothing option. Elements of a site can be modularized to provide some of the benefits. Combining a UPS, switchboards and generator into a single module for example makes the addition of capacity to a well-designed site as simple as orderingagainst a single part number.

So should we be considering modular data centers’ as a solution again? The answer as always depends on your application. Careful evaluation of your needs and requirements is essentialto decide the most suitable solution. Modular builds will continue to be a viable solution for data centers’ into the future, however traditional builds won't be going away anytime soon due to the flexibility that they offer.

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