The varying industry perspectives on pre-fabricated modular data centers often remind me of the classic 1974 picture The Conversation in which the entire story hinges on the interpretations of a single phrase. Take my word for it, the movie is a lot more interesting. Just like Gene Hackman found out in the movie, a misunderstanding, or in this case misapplication, can have some pretty large consequences.
Certainly a good deal of the confusion as it relates to pre-fabricated modular data centers is due to the fact that the industry has never adopted a formal definition, and sub-divisions, of the term “modular”. Now we’ve been down this road before, and still have no resolution, so I won’t belabor this point—although I will say that anybody who can achieve universal agreement on this terminology could probably solve the whole Middle East thing in a couple of days. Putting naming conventions to the side, the major issue for those contemplating the use of pre-fabricated solutions is to understand their operational scenarios.
In The Conversation, Gene Hackman was an electronic surveillance expert with the ability to correctly utilize the right technology to eavesdrop and record on private conversations no matter the location. Choosing to deploy a pre-fab solution is no different. Due to their standard form factor, and ability to be assembled and then shipped to the desired site, pre-fab solutions are commonly used to address “special circumstances” requirements. Need to add some capacity quick, pre-fab units enable you to clear some space in the parking lot, plug them in and get cracking. Unfortunately, the units themselves are housed within metal shells so all of the normal consequences of exposure to the elements apply thereby serving as a major deterrent to their ability to serve as long term solutions.
Although most pre-fab vendors hesitate (read, don’t) mention it, the long-term use of these solutions requires that they be housed within a conventional brick and mortar structure. Makes sense if you think about it. No one wants a rusting hulk to house their multi-million dollar computing and storage hardware. Thus, you as the prospective end user must either have your own building to house your new data center units or have one built for you. In other words, “building not included”.
While pre-fabricated data centers obviously have their limitations, they also are well suited for specific applications. They are ideal for hard to reach locales which has made them popular solutions for military applications. Following on this geographic theme, they also work well in areas that offer challenges with elements such as a suitable labor pool and infrastructure. Homogenous load groups running in loads of 100’s of kW and tightly integrated hardware/MEP for high density computing applications are also well-suited for pre-fabricated units. As such they are a solution that serves a niche in the industry, as opposed to being its future as many industry followers have tried to proclaim. From the user standpoint the decision to use a pre-fabricated solution must be the end result of a detailed analysis of both the organization’s requirements and existing resources. In short, before you begin, have the conversation.