The Evolution of the Modular Data Center


Ever since Sun introduced the modular data center concept with the launch of Project Blackbox in 2008, the idea of portable, easily deployed data infrastructure has limped along largely under the radar.

Indeed, the notion of having to suddenly establish a new physical data center seems almost quaint as we approach a world in which unlimited resources can be had just about anywhere with little more than a high-speed Internet connection.

And yet, the movement is still alive, with vendors large and small betting that not everyone will be comfortable putting their data over public networks should they suddenly need a performance boost. And, of course, there are always the cloud service providers themselves, who, at the end of the day, need a quick way to boost their physical infrastructure.

One of these customers, apparently, is Microsoft, which this week showed off a $550 million data center in Chicago designed to house standard shipping containers filled with IT gear. The facility, aimed at putting Microsoft on par with Google and Salesforce in the online service industry, has enough room for more than 100 containers, each of which can hold upwards of 2,000 servers that can be up and running within eight hours of delivery.

The modular approach has also seen a number of redesigns since the first Sun systems, most aimed at turning out smaller and cheaper platforms. Last month, Egenera and long-time partner Dell released the PAN Datacenter-in-a-Box, which sports a 16-blade enclosure, integrated SAN and virtual machine environments and a converged network fabric, all managed by Egenera's PAN management software. The system is aimed at the converged network market as a low-cost ($99,000 to start) alternative to higher-end systems from HP and Cisco.

Yet another offering comes for an Australian company called Datapod, which recently partnered with APC to integrate power management tools like the InfrastruXure platform, the Hot Aisle Containment system and the InRow Cooling solution to prevent the environment within the container from breaking down. Datapod offers full data center functionality in its containers, as well as specialized modules for things like access control and power generation. The companies are initially targeting the Asia-Pacific region, but may expand elsewhere before too long.

Modular systems might also have a future at remote sites, where they can provide instant IT capability in regions that don't have any real power or communications infrastructure to speak of. For these deployments, ruggedness is the key word. A company called Lampertz recently posted some video showing how its Outdoor Security Room would fare if it just happened to be near an explosion. The building seems to maintain its integrity all right, but it's hard to tell whether sensitive IT equipment would have continued functioning had it been in the room. In any event, it's always fun to watch explosions on Web video.

It's hard to imagine modular data centers evolving much beyond a niche market, aimed at those who need quick, temporary IT service. Still, it can have a fairly dramatic trickle-down effect for the IT industry as a whole: The tighter you can pack things in a modular enclosure, the more consolidation you'll see in brick-and-mortar facilities.