Taking Modular Data Centers To New Extremes

Mike Allen
March 16, 2014

Promising a Lego-like approach to data center construction that offers fast, simple and scalable building as well as potential energy efficiency gains, modular data centers have generated growing interest in recent years and are poised for significant investment in the near future. A recent Markets and Markets study estimated that the modular data center market is set to grow at a compound annual rate of more than 37 percent from 2013 to 2018, topping $40 billion by the end of the period. As interest in the modular data center market has grown, companies are also looking to push the idea of modularity to new extremes and move beyond early shipping container designs. For instance, Facebook recently announced plans to build a data center out of modular components flat packed in the style of IKEA furniture.

The idea of the modular data center publicly surfaced in 2006, when Sun Microsystems announced its Project Blackbox data centers designed to fit inside of shipping containers. Confirming rumors that it was using similar technology, Google received a patent – applied for in 2003 – for the concept of the “mobile datacenter” the next year, according to Ars Technica. From the outset, these shipping container data centers promised unprecedented data center portability and build times. But the model also began to prove valuable for handling another data center construction problem: scalability.

Rather than building a massive facility and partitioning off empty space as it is slowly filled with servers, companies can take a modular approach to add small, contained data center spaces as they need to expand capacity. As a result, they can cut down on energy costs associated with running a large-scale facility and keep infrastructure to a manageable size while maintaining room for growth. This flexibility has provided companies with an option for inexpensive expansion that proves far more effective than overhauling an existing facility every few months.

Similarly, they can take advantage of modularity to downsize and move to smaller, more efficient hardware, Cannon Technologies noted in a case study for ITWeb Africa. In addition to scalability, modular data centers are highly portable, making them ideal for quickly setting up new IT infrastructure for large, computing-intensive events like the Olympics or the Super Bowl, as well as in response to natural disasters or other situations that call for a quick, site-specific data center ramp-up.

Additionally, the options available are getting more sophisticated. Networking and infrastructure provider CommScope recently launched its custom modular data center solution, dubbed Data Center on Demand. Noting that the solution can achieve power usage effectiveness ratings as low as 1.03 to 1.06, the company highlighted the fact that its offering is a more specialized option than the original modular models.

“Enterprises are dealing with a continual data deluge and have to find ways to expand their capacity quickly and efficiently,” said Kevin St Cyr, CommScope’s senior vice president for enterprise solutions. “Some are up against the wall when it comes to physical space or available power and Data Center on Demand gives them a viable solution to expand quickly and easily with industry proven technology.”

Facebook’s Ikea Inspiration


In a recent blog post for its Open Compute project, Facebook announced a new approach designed to apply the idea of modularity and lean construction at a large scale. Called the “rapid deployment data center,” the company’s new plan takes inspiration from two popular assembly models. The first of these is a pre-built chassis approach that involves building 12-foot by 40-foot steel frames to house all the components needed above the server racks, including cable trays, power busways, containment panels and lighting, among other pieces. All of this is added in the factory ahead of time, streamlining assembly on-site.

The chassis are then shipped to the site and set on posts. Two are attached end-to-end to make a 60-foot-long cold aisle with 10 feet of space on either end. A total of 52 chassis in a 4×13 grid that leaves 13 cold aisles will comprise a full data center at Facebook’s Sweden location. The company believes it can improve the efficiency of shipping with the chassis approach rather than a containerized approach because containerized modular data centers traditionally contain the surrounding components and leave empty space for the actual server racks. In this model, the surrounding space is all that is needed, and the servers can be brought in later.

The other key aspect of the RDDC is a “flat pack” approach inspired by Ikea’s made-to-assemble furniture designs. Although still in the test phase, the plan calls for shipping only standard building products such as metal studs and 8-foot by 14-foot preassembled containment panels that can fit on a flatbed trailer without a wide load permit.

“Our previous data center designs have called for a high capacity roof structure that carries the weight of all our distribution and our cooling penthouse; this type of construction requires a lot of work on lifts and assembly on site,” Facebook’s Marco Magarelli wrote. “Instead, as Ikea has done by packing all the components of a bookcase efficiently into one flat box, we sought to develop a concept where the walls of a data center would be panelized and could fit into standard modules that would be easily transportable to a site.”

Taking these approaches, Facebook anticipates that the RDDC will achieve several deployment improvements. By manufacturing assemblies ahead of time, they will ideally be interchangeable, giving Facebook the ability to build a standardized data center in any location and meet predictable efficiency goals. Preassembling components should also make it possible to deploy faster and more cost-effectively. If the approach goes as intended, Facebook believes it can complete assembly in half the time as before. Additionally, this construction technique reduces the on-site impact of building a data center, minimizing the amount of heavy equipment required and the amount of waste generated.

Magarelli noted that Facebook plans to deploy a data center using these principles for its second facility in Lulea, Sweden. With these designs set to reach production soon, the information will soon be available for other companies to begin emulating. As a result, the bar is raised for other modular data center approaches. While the technique of presassembly has seen rapid growth and adoption in recent years, it may be the case that the possibilities for new efficiencies in data center deployment are only beginning to become apparent. The modular data center space will be key for industry players to watch as Facebook rolls out its RDDC and other companies follow with modular tools of their own.



    Mike Allen

    Promising a Lego-like approach to data center construction that offers fast, simple and scalable building as well as potential energy efficiency gains, modular data centers have generated growing interest in recent years and are poised for significant investment in the near future. A recent Markets and Markets study estimated that ...