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Prefabricated data centers offer modular expansion alternatives

Prefabricated modular data centers may provide a viable alternative to new construction. But the adoption of these "turn-key" data centers is yet to be seen.

Data center managers got a reprieve from having to expand their facility footprint in recent years as advances in the physical density of servers made it possible to stuff far more computing power into the same space. But as Michael A. Bell, research vice president for Gartner, Inc. noted last year, today a standard rack may be supporting loads up to 30,000 watts rather than the 3,000 watts the engineers of your data center probably expected. That in turn puts a major strain on your power and cooling capacity.

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Inevitably, many data center managers are faced with facility expansion as the only viable way to meet the escalating computing demands placed on them. A survey of the marketplace shows that there are a few options that, while perhaps not quite ready for prime time, will soon be realistic alternatives to traditional data center construction methods.

American Power Conversion Corp. (APC) has experimented with a rapid deployment data center model since late 2004, when it unveiled a prototype called the InfraStruXure Express. This self-contained facility is actually a 53-foot long trailer pulled by a big rig. It has an onboard 135 kW generator, makes its own chilled water, and offers a satellite data uplink. Inside the trailer is a small network operations center. Painted differently, it could pass as a mobile home for an espionage support crew.

"The InfraStruXure Express is the next evolution of a packaged system in the InfraStruXure category," says APC's Russel Senesac, Director of InfraStruXure Systems. "It came from the research we did in the market showing customers wanted the ability to quickly deploy [data centers], whether it's a case of disaster recovery or data centers running out of capacity. All the components are rack based—the UPS, the cooling systems—and so we could do a high-density application inside a 53-foot container."

The InfraStruXure Express is flexible—it can hook up to land-based data communications and "shore power" as well. It's unlikely that the rolling data center will leave the prototype stage in its current form; rather, it was outfitted to the gills to get reaction from potential customers for possible development of a future line of products. One problem facing APC: many of those interested in the InfraStruXure Express (which includes not only corporations but federal agencies like FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security) need heavily customized versions, a business model APC is not keen to rush into.

Sun Microsystems seems more likely to bring a mass-produced data center on wheels to market first with its Project Blackbox. The offering, also still officially in prototype stage but scheduled to be delivered to its first customers by March, is fundamentally different from InfraStruXure Express. For one thing, the only mobile aspect to Project Blackbox is that it gets delivered as a standard 20-foot shipping container on the back of a truck (or cargo ship, airplane, or railcar). Once it's dropped off at the customer site, it needs to be hooked up to external power and data lines, as well as a chilled water supply and return. Eight 19-inch racks are cleverly packaged inside, without room for much anything else other than fans and heat exchangers. Sun won't yet reveal pricing.

"We see a number of classes of customers [for Project Blackbox]," says Dave Douglas, Sun's vice president for eco-responsibility and chief technologist of Project Blackbox. "The first is people running out of space, power, or cooling in their existing data centers, finding that the time it's going to take to build a new one is longer than they've got to get the new capacity online. Another class is people who might make use of the mobility, who are looking for disaster recovery or maybe something temporary because they know they will be moving facilities in a few years. Increasingly, since people are less fixed in any given set of buildings, their willingness to invest in large fixed infrastructure in a single location goes down. Third would be emerging markets like China and India, where people are building data centers for the first time."

Although the containers could in theory be placed outdoors, in most non-emergency scenarios a secured warehouse would be the likely destination.

APC's Senesac points out the InfraStruXure Express is different from Project Blackbox in that his company's product "doesn't go into the IT, servers, switches, routers, etc." While Sun does not explicitly say it will only sell Blackboxes equipped with Sun hardware, it seems safe to bet that the company will be seeking customers who also use Sun servers and other company services.

Sun is not the first company to come up with the prefabricated, easily moved data center concept—Google uses something very similar internally to meet its rapidly growing need for geographically distributed data warehousing and number crunching. The U.S. military has a similar containerized rapid deployment system for data centers, and telecommunications companies have engineered their own solutions to process data in remote or unconventional locations. While smaller companies that create pre-fabricated data centers for custom needs (for example, for burying underground) do exist, Sun appears to be the first major company to try to commercialize the concept on a wide scale, at least in the United States.

Many people aren't aware however that in Europe, IBM Global Technology Services offers three products that are similar and have already been implemented: a prefabricated data center with a permanent structure; a prefabricated data center in a shipping container; and a fleet of seven air-conditioned, UPS-protected trailers that can be dispatched to any location on the continent for temporary or emergency situations. The company disputes that such solutions will ever have truly wide appeal, however.

"Sun's solution is not unique," says Tim Willeford, Media Relations Lead for IBM Global Technology Services. "Other firms have done exactly the same thing, with a data center in a truck, data center containers etc. IBM believes these are narrow solutions that address unique and small niches, and based on the published data, the Sun environment does not appear to have anything new and looks outrageously expensive."

IBM doesn't have these solutions available to U.S. customers. Its closest offering to a turn-key data center may be one of the new services from its Site and Facilities Services business unit (a part of IBM Global Technology Services) unveiled last October. The service—Scalable Modular Data Center for Small and Medium-sized Businesses—uses pre-drawn plans for 500-square-foot and 1,000-square-foot data centers in order to get a company's data center running quickly. The plans are designed to use APC's modular InfraStruXure power, cooling, and management products and can be put into environments lacking typical data center enhancements, such as raised floors.

As for the more radical approaches being tested by APC and Sun, time will tell whether the convenience lives up to the hype, and whether the price will make such ready-to-go data centers economical for vendors to sell and data center managers to install.

Let us know what you think about the article; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, Site Editor

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