It Takes a Building

It Takes a Building - Compass DatacentersA number of members of the data center industry have begun proclaiming that pre-fabricated units represent the future of the modular data center. These assertions are premised on their belief that these units can be quickly implemented anywhere they are needed; at lower price points than competing solutions. Unfortunately, these prognostications may be based more on the sizzle rather than the steak. Let’s examine a few of the underlying claims made regarding the geographic flexibility of pre-fabricated data centers to see if the reality matches up with the hype.

Claim: You Can Put Them Anywhere
Not really. Local zoning ordinances and building codes strictly define what are considered “acceptable” structures that can be erected within the city limits. Many of these requirements are aesthetic in nature. Pre-fabricated units aren’t referred to as “containerized” for no good reason since they typically resemble freight cars, or storage sheds at Home Depot, more than buildings. Thus, for pre-fab only implementations, obtaining approval in most jurisdictions would be equivalent to attempting to put a trailer park on Main Street.

Claim: You Can Put Them Anywhere Pt. 2
You can place them inside an existing building that has been modified to support them, or in a facility that you construct. However, this is a serious caveat to the geographic flexibility argument since buildings tend to be inherently immobile. If you need the building first, anywhere means, “anywhere I have a hardened facility with power and fiber”.

Claim: Your Can Put Them Anywhere Pt. 3
Pre-fabricated solutions are by definition not hardened. This refers to their inability to withstand adverse conditions like high winds or seismic activity. Only bricks and mortar can provide the ability to stand up to the elements described. Unfortunately, no one has figured out how to produce a physical building in a data center factory, (and they wouldn’t ship particularly well if they did), so any plan to use containers or pre-fab buildings as the basis for a long term solution will require you to incur the expense to modify an existing structure or build your own facility to accommodate the pre-fab units. This fact was probably not included in the brochure.

Pre-fabricated data centers seem to represent the zeitgeist of the data center industry’s “chattering class”, and they do service a specific applications niche. However, their inability to service enterprise applications without a physical facility to house the multiple units necessary for even an average sized data center cools the ardor of the most fevered enterprise customer. As for the assertions that they represent the future of the modular data center, let’s just say that style rarely triumphs over substance.