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Is this what future data centers will look like?

Brandon Butler | June 7, 2013
New breed of modular data centers are built quickly with flexibility in mind.

Modular data centers offer some unique advantages for data center operators at large organizations. Most specifically, they are quick to deploy. "Instead of 15 to 20 months for a new data center build out, you can get more capacity in 15 to 20 weeks." That's quite appealing to a variety of customers. Colleges and universities that have grant-funded research and need capacity quickly can spin these units up. Organizations that have a lot of remote sites can deploy individual units across their organization and grow the capacity as needed by just adding another unit, if necessary. Hyper-scale data center operators have found a use for them as well.

Microsoft, for example, uses Dell modular data centers to roll out new capacity at some of its data centers based on customer demand for its services, Cappuccio says. The units come preconfigured with a couple thousand servers installed and ready to go; Microsoft plugs in the container and is off and running. IO provides just the container and customers source the materials for the inside. "The real driver here is if you need something quick," Cappuccio says.

Williams, with Lexus Nexus, enjoys the flexibility they provide in granularly controlling the operations of the data center. High-density workloads can have redundant power supplies; a sandbox environment may get more power and cooling as the developers spin up and down resources. IO CIO George Slessman equates it to a home: On a hot summer day when you want to cool down a beer, you don't crank up the air conditioning in your entire house you put it in the refrigerator. In a modular data center, you don't have to high-capacity cooling and double-sourced power supplies to the entire facility all the time, only the aspects that really need it.

IO.OS (IO Operating System) is the software interface for controlling which areas of the container get which resources, while also monitoring the system for anomalies in usage and alerting users of potential security breaches. "The data center has classically been a very dumb component of IT, it's fundamentally been a building where the hardware sits," Slessman says. Smart data centers design plus software designed to run it make these systems respond automatically to the needs of the organization. IO's data centers can either be shipped to customer sites, or the company can host it at one of its campuses.

Cappuccio says the advent of modular units are part of a broader trend in the industry to have more responsive data center designs. "Data center design is finally catching up with reality," he says. A similar system that has certain zones for high-density workloads with extra cooling and redundant power and be built within a traditional data center too; IO is just taking a container-based approach. He says typically there is not a major cost advantage compared to a regular build out because power and cooling infrastructure still have to be supplied to the unit, but he says discounts from manufacturers right now to entice customers into the market are making it an attractive pricing option. IO would not release specific pricing information for its units. IBM, HP and Dell each have modular data center boxes as well.


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