Containerized Data Center: Soon to Be the New Normal?

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Economic pressures are pushing data center infrastructure through some of the most rapid changes in the past 30 years.

Certainly, the cloud is part of this movement, although to a large extent the cloud represents the movement of data across disparate resources rather than an underlying change to the resources themselves.

I would argue that an even more dramatic shift is taking place in the makeup of the physical data center itself. The rise of modular, containerized compute environments stands to remake the IT industry from the ground up, literally. Its impact is likely to be felt in everything from the design and development of physical resources to power and cooling technologies and even application structures and environments.

It wasn't too long ago that the modular data center was something of a novelty - a unique approach to data center design that probably wouldn't see much use outside a few specialty deployments. Lately, however, some pretty big names have launched new modular infrastructures, including eBay, co-location provider i/o and a number of top universities and research facilities.

The appeal of a pre-fab data center is easy to understand. As Computerworld's John Edwards noted this week, enterprises gain a quick shot of formidable computing power at relatively low cost and on a footprint that is dramatically smaller than traditional bricks-and-mortar facilities. This rapid acceptance has helped modular systems shed their image as the IT equivalent of the mobile home to what some are now calling the future data center template.

Modularity is also expected to usher in a new era of Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM), the practice of integrating power, data and systems management to eke out higher levels of efficiency. According to Tier1 researcher Jason Schafer, the increased standardization of components that accompanies pre-fab designs makes it easier for intelligent DCIM platforms to make the changes needed to ensure optimal performance. Shifting data loads and managing power levels is much easier when the software no longer has to negotiate with multiple platforms and configurations.

Enterprises might also find it easier to tap into alternate sources of energy with modular systems. AMD, HP and Clarkson University are part of a group investigating the feasibility of locating containers in regions that are amenable to wind and solar energy, even if the client enterprise is hundreds of miles away. In this way, organizations can dramatically lessen their power requirements even as new resources are brought online.

Closer to home, modularity is taking hold among various components within the data center, offering enterprises the ability to boost performance on a piecemeal basis. Schneider APC, for example, offers the Active Power module, a 100kW power and cooling system that encapsulates a number of the company's standalone offerings, such as the Symmetra UPS, InRow cooling and NetBotz security. The company says it can deploy 1 MW of capacity in less than half the time of a normal installation, and for about $2 per watt.

Modular technology has the appeal of being easy to deploy, cost and energy efficient and easier to manage and maintain. As more and more enterprises look to boost their infrastructure for private clouds and other functions, adding a few containers in the back lot starts to look much more appealing than a completely new building.