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Containers transform steel mill into modular data center

Stacking containers inside a former steel mill creates a new modularly designed data center with abundant power.

A data center outside Pennsylvania is using containers -- no, not application containers, but physical containers...

-- to solve its space problem.

The container data center at Keystone NAP, housed in a 60,000-square-foot former steel factory outside Philadelphia, is a modular data center design using what the company calls a KeyBlock.

Modular data centers cover a variety of technologies. Currently, about 30 vendors sell some sort of modular data center product, according to Jeff Hewitt, a research vice president at Gartner.

The most likely deployment of a modular data center is as a fully modular-based, medium-sized or large data center, or to house infrastructure outside an existing data center, according to attendees at the Gartner Data Center, Infrastructure and Operations Management Conference last month in Las Vegas.

For multi-tenant colocation provider Keystone NAP, a modular design approach best uses the three-floor building, said co-founder Shawn Carey. The difference is being close to an abundant source of power -- three existing grid feeds delivering more than 2 megawatts -- in a strong steel-and-concrete brownfield building. Abundant power is not available just anywhere. The former steel mill had its own power supply. Installing a power supply that rivals what was available could cost close to $10 million, Carey estimated.

"My step-in costs were much lower," he said. The power costs are also much lower than in nearby New Jersey and New York, at 9.5 cents per kilowatt an hour or less.

"The idea of modularity gives us great flexibility of what we can do," Carey said.

The brownfield property is also in a Keystone Opportunity Zone, which exempts the 6% state sales tax on all equipment purchased for the data center, including purchases made by customers.

The idea of modularity gives us great flexibility of what we can do.
Shawn Careyco-founder, Keystone NAP

Examples of modular data center design include micromodular data centers, rack and row containment, container data centers, and an uber-module -- "the doublewide trailer of the modular world," according to Gartner's Hewitt.

Joseph Rukas, vice president and CTO at a New Jersey insurance company located in the Philadelphia area, made the decision last year to move his company's production infrastructure to the Keystone NAP facility, in large part because of dissatisfaction with another provider.

The company occupied colocation space in Windstream's Bethlehem and Conshohocken, Pa., data centers since 2008.

The Conshohocken data center was a converted meatpacking plant without raised floors and what he described as a "problematic" cooling system -- pointing to the loss of a storage area network driver to overheating.

The search for a new data center provider began in March 2014, when Rukas' company experienced a significant outage. "[A] denial of service literally sucked up the entire bandwidth into their data center," Rukas said. Then, over the course of several months in 2014, the firm experienced downtime frequently, often for several hours.

"That's what triggered us to say 'Enough is enough,'" he said. He watched the Keystone NAP data center being constructed and found it pretty impressive.

Although Keystone NAP is located in an area that is still under construction, Rukas said he has no concern about the data center going down and has been told it is "very unlikely."

Rukas is encouraged by Keystone's backup partner data center in Reading, Pa., which he described as a strong backup that can be cut over to in less than two hours.

Inside the modular data center design

The KeyBlocks inside Keystone NAP each house 22 IT racks. The containers allowed Keystone to build a data center and sell it before it was complete, according to Carey.

The pods can be assembled on-site or at the factory for fabricator and partner Schneider Electric. Keystone creates a module design from a customer's requirements, talking to them about the applications they are running. The design is then taken to Schneider, which typically takes about 90 days to assemble it.

"We could happily entertain other modules from other vendors," Carey said.

The module is taken by flatbed to Keystone NAP, and plugged in to the power, cooling and network systems, followed by a five-week testing and validation process.

The size of the KeyBlock, at 14 feet wide, was determined by looking at the best size to fit in the former steel factory, combined with the best size for shipping.

For some customers, compliance requirements dictate the data centers must have a dedicated floor and ceiling -- this is why each stackable KeyBlock has a metal wall, floor and ceiling. The former U.S. Steel mill, which operated from the 1950s to the 1980s, is in a remote location on a private campus with a guard, which makes it attractive to hospital and financial services companies, Carey said.

Customers don't own or lease the KeyBlock; they sign a multiyear license to use it. Unlike more typical modular data center designs, KeyBlocks aren't intended to be moved or go outside. This design reduces the materials needed during construction, increases segregation and privacy, and improves build time.

Keeping the IT deployment safe and running smoothly

Uninterruptible power supplies protect against drops and surges

Cooling maintains servers and IT equipment at proper inlet temps

Security prevents unauthorized personnel from accessing corporate data

Fire suppression keeps workers and equipment safe

Some prospective customers have asked to bring in their own module, and Carey said that Keystone can do individual designs.

Inside, customers supply and own all their own IT infrastructure, and each KeyBlock has its own cooling infrastructure, uninterruptible power supply, fire suppression and security. While most of the servers in the KeyBlocks are typically managed remotely, there are stairs and catwalks to access upper-level KeyBlocks.

In addition to the three power feeds, the facility uses existing resources for cooling, which comes from Delaware River water and an underground aquifer.

The architecture of the Keystone design is evolving, applying lessons learned from the first stack. For example, Keystone allocated more IT space inside the KeyBlocks than was needed, allowing them to fit more racks in a block. Also, they can stack more power and cooling infrastructure inside to save money.

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at [email protected].

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