Modular data centres: the rise and the advantages

April 18th, 2016, Published in Articles: EngineerIT

Motivated by cloud computing and the application of big data and the internet of things (IoT), the construction of data centres brings a new level of expertise to companies. In such a huge market, a traditional data centre is in a “solid” state which lacks flexibility and extendibility. With the development of businesses and increasing applications, the drawbacks of traditional data centres have emerged gradually.

A traditional data centre is basically built and deployed in a “one deployment for one project” and “one machine for one application” manner. Its deployment goes slowly and the density is low. The server is bundled tightly with auxiliary modules such as power supply and cooling systems, making it difficult to expand, and one small change may affect the whole. In the end, the systems in a data centre need more management software to meet the development requirements of the business it serves and to increase its applications. They become more redundant, and the power supply and cooling systems barely meet the requirements. It is time that we re-design and extend the entire system.

The modular data centre is the module and compartment conducted at the location of the data centre according to industry standards. The entire data centre is divided into various individual areas. Each area is designed separately for its scale, power load, configuration, etc. according to a unified standard. The cooling and power supply and management systems in a modular data centre are compartmentalised and modularised to make sure that they do not interfere with each other and can be operated independently without shared resources. A module can give the data centre a series of advantages. According to Michelle Bailey, a trend researcher at the data centre of market research company IDC, a colossal and integral data centre is now out of date. The modular data centre has the potential to become a “virtually recognised approach” for the building of a data centre in the next five years. Any business, regardless of its scale or the industry to which it belongs, may build a modular data centre for itself and expand the scale of the data centre to meet more IT-related requirements.

Fig. 1. Basic construction period of a data centre.

Fig. 1. Basic construction period of a data centre.

The driving force of the market to build a micro-modular data centre

Announcement of multiple policies leads to the establishment of the modular data centre.

The intensive announcements of national policies indicate that the government emphasises the energy efficiency indicators and applications of new technologies in the construction of data centres. On the other hand, the excellent performance of modular data centres in terms of energy consumption, and the advantages in the construction, planning and required space are in line with the directions of government policy. With these, the modular data centres have entered a fast-growing phase.

Equipment manufacturers promote the idea of modular data centres

The national policies attract the infrastructure and traditional uninterrupted power supply (UPS) manufacturers to the competitive market of modular data centres. All the major manufacturers are promoting the idea of modular data centres and releasing related products.

Product advantages attract users to choose and build modular data centres

With the ever-increasing energy costs, many businesses want to ensure the usage rate of the data centre and, at the same time, need to strictly control the energy costs – a huge burden to the operations of the business. The modular data centre is more advantageous than its traditional counterparts where the cost of civil engineering is concerned. It is constructed in the form of prefabrication, and the designing, management and turnkey contracting costs are 30% lower than the traditional data centre. Thanks to the prefabrication, it only takes a few weeks to finish the construction, much less than the construction period of a traditional data centre, and a quick deployment of the data centre is ensured.

Modular data centres can be expanded rapidly and installed and deployed in remote offices or for temporary tasks. When the construction and deployment is in progress, a fully-functional data centre can be built after the supply of electricity, water and network connection is ensured. Hence, many customers – including internet companies, telecommunications carriers and large companies – have experimentally begun to deploy modular data centre solutions. For example, internet enterprises IBM, Microsoft and Google have begun to build modular data centres. Local corporations and internet enterprises such as Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and related operators have used modular data centre products in their newly built data centres. They have gained benefits in the construction period, energy consumption and cost.

Definitions and characteristics of modular data centres

Modular data centres are designed to:

  • Deal with changes in servers such as cloud computing, virtualisation, centralisation and high density.
  • Improve the operational efficiency of data centres.
  • Reduce energy consumption.
  • Achieve the goal of rapid expansion and zero interference.

Modular data centres are comprised of various modules with independent functions and a unified input/output interface. Modules in different compartments can make duplications for each other and a fully functional data centre is established through a combination of related modules.

Modular data centres are integrated, standardised, optimised and intelligent with highly adaptable infrastructure and a computing environment of high availability.
Modular data centres will meet the urgent needs of the IT department in the future, such as standardisation, module, virtual design, dynamic IT infrastructure (flexibility and high usage rate of resources), 24/7 smart operations management (process automation, smart data centre), business continuity support (disaster recovery and high availability), shared IT service (inter-business and shared infrastructure, information, application), quick response to the changing needs in business (on-demand supply of resources), green data centres (energy-saving and carbon-reduction), and so on.

Modular data centres solve the problems that traditional data centres face

Long lead time of construction: The construction period is the time needed for the planning, design and installation of the systems in the data centre and its operation. As previous experience shows, the period is usually calculated in years. Fig. 1 shows the typical schedule for the project of this type. Lots of planning processes are needed for traditional solutions, so the schedule is very lengthy. According to the actual situation in the project construction, the construction of the infrastructure is usually completed in the decision-making, preparation, implementation and completion phases. A period of about 400 days is usually needed to finish the construction with includes:

  • Decision-making period: This includes the preliminary research on feasibility and research on feasibility. The estimated investment is confirmed at this phase.
  • Preparation period: This includes the planning, design, and preparation for construction of the data centre.
  • Implementation period: This includes supply of equipment for the data centre, construction, installation and preparation for production. Construction and installation are a crucial part for the conversion from blueprints to physical buildings. After the preparation for construction is made, a commencement report must be submitted to the supervising department and the construction shall not be started without the corresponding approval. Preparations for production are carried out across the preparation, implementation and the completion phases. The major work will be completed during the implementation period.
  • Completion period: This includes the adjustment, test operations, acceptance inspection and handover of the work.

The 400 day period might be extended when continuous prediction of the project is needed. In a time of rapidly changing business requirements, this schedule is neither suitable nor acceptable because customers wish to build a new data centre in only a few months rather than a few years.

  • Poor expandability: The expandability is crucial to the adaptability of a business. System capacity is designed in consideration of the worst case scenario based on future business requirements. However, unreasonable construction may be carried out due to the inability to predict the needs over the next three to four years. Another solution is even more worrisome because the construction is carried out conservatively, only in consideration of current requirements, and the capacity can be increased only at the cost of business continuity and increased operating costs. Research shows that the current usage rate of the data centre infrastructure capacity is less than 50% and, in fact, only one-third of the data centre is used. Think about this: the return on investment of a project is supposed to be three times higher and two-thirds of the investment can be used for other projects of the company to create more returns.
  • High energy consumption: A huge amount of electricity is needed for the operations of a data centre that has high power consumption. In the construction of traditional data centres, issues like power supply, cooling and airflow management are never taken into consideration as the first priority. The power usage effectiveness (PUE) of many data centres is too high, and they usually use regular environmental power equipment of high reliability. However, the efficiency of this equipment is usually low, and the PUE of such data centres is usually more than 2,0 or higher, meaning half of the energy used for the data centres is consumed for the IT load and the other half is consumed for critical and physical internet infrastructures, such as power supply, cooling and lighting installations.
  • Difficult operations and maintenance of the data centre: IT operations and maintenance face many problems. They have encountered the predicament of low service quality. The extensive operations and maintenance lead to incomprehensive resource accounts. The personnel in charge of the operations and maintenance do not fully understand all the IT resources, not to mention the management. No specialists for service interface are available and chaos occurs in both the reporting and handling of failures. IT personnel need to gather enormous data and statistical reports to find out the optimisation results of the operations and maintenance systems, but routine IT operations, maintenance and management are not useful for effectively gathering these statistical data.

Advantages of modular data centres

Rapid deployment and shorter construction period: Modular data centres enable a shorter planning and designing period. The system structure can be configured reasonably with reference to the design target. For example, the physical arrangement of module units is made only with a selected number and type of the equipment that can meet current IT requirements. Large batch production of modules leads to off-the-shelf supply of the products and quicker delivery. Standardised connection methods reduce the workload for on-site configuration and connection to shorten the time for installation. Modules can be connected and pre-tested in the factory in the same way as the on-site work. The time needed for adjustment of the system becomes less than ever. The data centre is designed to meet the current IT requirement, and fewer small-scale infrastructures than the traditional system are needed to further shorten the time for deployment. The construction period for modular data centres is substantially shortened. Then, it takes about seven to eight months to build a traditional data centre while two to three months are needed to build a modular data centre.

High expendability and multiple construction phases: Since more data centress can be added to a modular architecture, one to ten modules can be constructed depending on your requirements to optimise the IT configuration in a data centre. The modular date centre solution has evidently reduced the cost during the service period of the data centre. For instance, a colocation company with a large-scale internet data centre (IDC) is not aware of how many racks and which level of power supply a customer needs when the customer asks for additional business within a short period of time. The modular data centre is the best choice in these circumstances.

Standard, stable and reliable modules: Modular data centres adopt a modular, standardised and highly-integrated design that makes the system more stable. In addition, modular data centres can provide configuration solutions such as N, N+1 and 2N to support electricity back-up depending on the customer’s requirements to reach the highest TIA-942 Tier 4 level.

Environmental protection and energy conservation: The cost of power during the service life of data centres occupies the largest percentage in the total cost of ownership. Planning infrastructure depending on the current IT requirements and adding new modules according to the growing IT requirements enables users to provide modules only for the required equipment, and the power cost saved during the service life of the data centre is extremely high. The modular data centre allows a good match in the capacity and workload of the power and cooling systems to improve work efficiency and reduce over-configuration. The power conversion rate of the module is 95,4%*. Adopting a standard interface and modular architecture saves electricity significantly and achieves the goal of systematic energy conservation. In-row cooling units are used to supply the air directly to the nearby hot spots. This shortens the airflow distance and improves the cooling efficiency to solve the problem of hot spots. The cold aisle containment is isolated to ensure non-interference between the cold and hot air and to prevent the heat island effect due to airflow disturbance and loss of air and refrigeration amount. Compared to traditional data centres, the cooling efficiency of a modular data centre is increased by more than 12%*. The PUE drops to less than 1,5 thanks to the combination with the chilled-water and free cooling systems.

Intelligent management with highly-efficient operation: The intelligent management system is able to provide energy-saving and consumption-reduction to customers. It realises multi-level refined energy consumption management of data centres and positions additional energy consumption points precisely with the support of multiple reports. Optimised energy-saving plans are generated from the big data analytics to build green data centres. Optimal assets management is implemented within the life cycle of the full-network assets to realise the closed-loop management of information and to ensure real-time update and management of data. It is useful for the clients to establish on asset maintenance plan that indicates the implementation of active early warning. The plans can be adjusted dynamically and optimised plans reflecting the actual situations are outputted to create the best assets management function.

Definition of modular products and system components

Modules are applicable to the data centres in the following two categories:

Partially prefabricated data centre

The data centre built by a mixture of deployed prefabricated modules (rack system, cooling system, cabling system and monitoring system) and the traditional “on-site construction” system is called “partially prefabricated data centre”.

Fully prefabricated data centre

A fully prefabricated data centre is built with the prefabricated modules (power supply system, rack system, cooling system, cabling system, monitoring system) as a single separately enclosed space. The modules are divided into parts when transported to the site and re-assembled at the site. This data centre needs the support of external infrastructures such as generators, chiller units or high-low voltage power distribution systems.

*Note: The data was evaluated by Delta GreenTech.

Contact Ross Peringuey, Delta Power Solutions,  Tel 012 663-2714,

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