How to choose a micro data center in rugged locations

Rather than a big container setup, the micro data center fits a whole compute system onto 23U, with fire and climate protection built in.

Modular data centers house a full complement of server, storage, networking and environmental controls, and they're getting smaller and smaller.

Containerized data centers let businesses set up local computing resources when building a data center or leasing space in a colocation center is impractical -- say, on an oil tanker. A typical container-based data center contains dozens of physical servers and thousands of virtual machines within a 40-foot shipping container.

Smaller micro-modular or micro data center (MDC) designs enable deployments in more remote locations. These containers house fewer than 10 servers and under 100 virtual machines within a single 19-inch rack assembly. The Smart Bunker MDC system from AST Modular, for example, is designed to host 85 virtual machines within a 42U rack assembly. New MDCs hit the 23U size mark, deployed in single-rack enclosures.

Just like their full-size container brethren, micro data centers include an internal fire suppression system, protection against floods and humidity, locks and biometric security to guard against theft and vandalism, and a complete redundant cooling system and electromagnetic (EM) shields to protect nearby electronic equipment. Everything is powered by three-phase power from local utilities or separate generators.

The hardened data center kits suit short or intermediate-term deployments in remote or potentially hazardous or insecure situations, such as areas ravaged by earthquakes, floods, wars and so on. Remote monitoring helps IT administrators operate the unit from distant locations.

The right tool for the job

Although micro data centers can be deployed into an existing data center building, for example, to support the business during a data center renovation, they differ from converged infrastructure platforms and solve a different set of problems.

Converged infrastructure products, such as Cisco's Unified Computing System, solve systems integration problems by bundling pre-tested and optimized combinations of servers, storage, networking and software into complete computing platforms that are serviced and maintained by a single vendor. These bundles require power, cooling, fire suppression and security provided on-site.

Micro data centers send compute power to a location quickly and with flexible requirements. Both micro data centers and converged infrastructure boxes can serve small and medium-sized businesses without an established data center facility. However, MDC deployments are more often remote from established utilities and infrastructure in potentially dangerous places, so security, cooling, fire suppression and other physical attributes need to be self-contained in the product.

There is no guarantee that the computing systems and software within a micro data center are optimized for any particular purpose in the same way that converged infrastructure boxes are. However, MDC users can acquire pre-installed equipment and create the same converged concept. For example, AST's Smart Bunker micro data center can include Dell hardware, Citrix virtualization and custom Cloudtimizer software for monitoring.

What to look for in a micro data center

Power use typically ranges from 12 kW to 20 kW for a full-sized rack version, though high-density offerings from vendors like Elliptical Mobile Solutions can support 20 kW to 80 kW in a 42U rack. Your power demand will depend on the rack size, the number of servers, the number of active workloads (and the number of physical servers idle or powered down), cooling demands, the prevailing usage environment and so on.

Review the unit's various environmental ratings in addition to its computing capabilities if you need a hardened data center. Five key rating areas include fire protection, security, EM suppression, environmental protection and seismic protection (see Table 1).

Table 1. How to evaluate a micro data center's hardness

AST Smart Bunker
Fire protection RF 120-rated panels according to European Standard EN 13501
Security EN 1627 WK4 rated; experienced intruders would take over 10 minutes using various tools to get into the cabinet
EM suppression IEC 61567 rated for 60 decibels (dB) of electrical noise suppression at 1 GHz and 40 dB of suppression at 3 GHz.
Environmental protection Tightness to IP66 in EN 60529: Safe from power jets of water at any angle and dust tight
Seismic (earthquake) resistance Will withstand earthquakes in Zone 4 according to Telecordia (Bellcore) standards

Another micro data center, the RASER family from Elliptical Mobile Solutions, targets compliance with the Restriction of Hazardous Substances act, CE (European Community Safety), Underwriters Laboratories Inc., Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and Sarbanes-Oxley regulations in the U.S.

While these specifications may not matter to users deploying an MDC for support during data center renovations or for boosting a branch office's computing power, they are critical for MDCs deployed in developing, disaster-stricken or war-torn areas of the world.

This was first published in April 2014

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