Modular data centers are a very specific type of modular building and are one of the most affordable and effective ways to get additional computing power. These centers range from small installations a few feet wide to entire buildings custom-built for your company’s needs.
Below we will explain what you need to know about modular data centers.
What Is A Modular Data Center?
A modular data center is a self-contained facility that houses computer servers, cooling systems, power supplies, and other equipment. They’re essentially the modern replacement for server rooms, which companies used to host on-site.
While platforms like Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services offer easy access to remote and cloud hosting, these aren’t preferred for some companies.
Whether you want more control over the hardware and software or the price of scaling up is too much, modular data centers offer an effective solution to hosting needs.
While they can be as small as a single server in an enclosed case, modular data centers can grow to rival warehouses in size and offer as much computing space as necessary.
The potential for growth makes them ideal for minimizing costs while maximizing performance, while the on-demand style makes them easy to grow as needed.
Modular data centers can also work in areas where it’s difficult or impossible to build a traditional data center, such as remote areas.
Computing Resources (Servers, Storage, Firewalls, Networking, etc.)
Computing resources are the primary part of modular data centers. These include elements like servers (the primary computers that handle work), data storage, and firewall systems to provide security.
Modular data centers also have extensive networking options to connect to the internet at acceptably high speeds.
Getting computing resources is the primary reason any company wants a data center. Companies offer different setups for these, from fully-customized servers to prefabricated systems you can order in almost any quantity.
Modular data centers also make it possible to provide additional computing resources when you need them. For example, you can transport a data center to an event to show off technology that requires cloud-level computing power without relying on slower, local internet systems.
Infrastructure racks are physical systems that hold components inside a data center. Most of these are usually server racks, which hold computing resources, but they can also include systems like power units and cooling systems.
The exact design of infrastructure racks in modular data centers depends on their size. For example, in large centers, companies may install power racks throughout the facility.
In centers the size of a single shipping container, the racks may line one wall to ensure foot traffic can move through.
Racks provide a universal design to make it easy to add and replace components as needed.
Power supplies are integral to the performance of modular data centers. There are two kinds of power supplies most facilities need.
The first type is the universal power supply. This is a system that converts energy from an electrical generator to a form that’s safe for computer components like cooling systems and servers.
The placement of universal power supplies varies depending on the data center’s design, but most are built close to a single entry point for electricity.
Large data centers may also have an uninterrupted power supply. Aside from unfortunately sharing the same name as universal power supplies, these provide on-demand electricity in case of power failures.
By self-supplying the energy, it’s possible to keep the servers up at all times.
Uninterrupted power supplies can’t last forever, and they need to scale to match the electricity demands of the facility.
However, even if you don’t need them long-term, they can provide power for long enough to shut down the facility safely and avoid data loss while waiting for the primary electricity to come back.
Most other systems in modular data centers produce heat, so cooling is the simple answer. Without cooling, servers will quickly overheat and shut down, so these are a mandatory part of modular data centers of all sizes.
Cooling systems focus on getting heat out of the data center and can do this in many ways. Some can distribute heat through the walls, which is good when conditions allow.
Others use some combination of liquid cooling and fans to actively radiate heat away from the area and keep things at an ideal operating temperature.
Some companies go a step further and capture this heat to reuse for generating electricity or running other systems.
Heat is an inevitable result of running in data centers, so the theory here is that companies might as well use it. Designing data centers to use heat can make this a practical procedure.
Fires are rare in modern data centers, but fire protection is still essential. Most modular data centers big enough to walk in have fire protection built-in for the facility, including electronic-safe foams and other strategies that can quickly put out any fires that occur.
One of the primary benefits of modular data centers is that it’s often possible to localize damage from fires and stop it from affecting the rest of the center.
Most fire protection systems consist of a control unit, some kind of fire detector, a suppressant storage tank, and emitters. Advanced systems may have extra controls to direct suppressant to where it’s needed.
Water is no longer the favorite option for most data centers. Instead, systems will often use inert gas to flood the area and block out oxygen. Inert gas is generally safe as long as its container doesn’t rupture, and by nature, it doesn’t go bad if stored well.
Many modular data centers use shipping containers for their exterior, which further helps fire protection by limiting the possible spread of flames.
Modular data centers have a range of physical security options to protect them. Most modular systems have in metal walls, which resist casual damage and intrusion. Locks and other security systems can further enhance protection.
Placing modular data centers in well-defended areas to protect them is easy. For example, many companies install modular data centers inside buildings with controlled access or inside walled compounds that house other structures.
The correct security measures depend on the data center’s size and construction, but most data centers are secure as soon as they’re installed.
On top of their physical security measures, it’s possible to enhance modular data centers with additional security.
For example, interior lock systems can send alerts and shut down components if there’s any sign of unauthorized access. Such systems make it much harder for anyone to steal valuable company data.
Here are some of the main benefits of modular data centers.
Speed of Delivery
Modular data centers have a much higher speed of delivery than traditional construction. Major data centers can take years to build, and even smaller facilities can take a year or two to set up. In contrast, modular centers can go up in days to weeks.
Some companies offer ready-to-use modules, which they can ship directly from manufacturing facilities and place on any prepared surface. Others will work with you to design a custom facility, then send out parts to rapidly assemble it in place.
Either way, modular data centers usually take far less time to build and expand.
Modular data centers usually cost far less than traditional structures. Most of the savings are in labor and parts. If you can shave literal years off a construction timeframe, that’s a lot of labor you don’t need to pay for.
Keeping costs low makes it much easier for businesses of all sizes to afford data centers meeting their needs. As a bonus, this means the company doesn’t have to rely on external providers to run critical computing systems.
The lower cost also means that modular data centers can be a viable choice for projects where data centers would otherwise render the entire thing impossible.
Data centers have much easier installation designs than most traditional facilities. The heavy focus on modular components means they often ship in large sections that can drop in place with minimal work beyond that.
Many modular data centers are self-supporting so that they can go directly on top of any flat, stable surface. This means you don’t have to dig down too deeply or go out of your way to prepare an installation site beyond the necessities.
Some modular data centers are portable, which is ideal for companies that don’t expect to be in a single place long-term. This is a little more complicated than some of the other factors, though.
Portable centers are easy to move into place and often come with everything they need except an external power supply. These are ideal for projects in remote locations, temporary events, and similar issues.
However, portable designs also don’t allow for the same density as permanent buildings.
That’s not a problem for most smaller businesses because modern servers are powerful enough that one or two portable data centers are probably all the company needs, but companies with heavy requirements may still prefer permanent facilities.
Reduced Real Estate Footprint
Modular data centers can offer a significantly reduced real estate footprint for using computing power. That’s not a major concern in rural areas where there’s near-unlimited space to build, but it’s especially important in urban zones where every square foot matters.
For example, in New York City, the sale price of a square foot of office space was almost $1000 in 2021. That’s not even the cost of physical land but rather the purchasing price for part of one floor in a skyscraper.
When costs add up that quickly, reducing real estate footprints as much as possible is a real money-saver.
Most modular data centers are highly customizable. It’s possible to get configurations with different computing performance, space, and overall designs. This means it’s easy to install data centers in areas that don’t make sense for constructing regular buildings.
Modular data centers are an excellent way to make use of space that could otherwise be going to waste.
Highly Secure Buildings
Most modular data centers are highly secure. They typically feature sturdy steel shells that stop any casual intrusion, and it’s easy to install secure physical or electronic locks and prevent unwanted access to them.
Alternatively, you can install modular data centers inside already-secure buildings, like some office structures. Either way, keeping the servers safe is easy.
Many modular data centers are green-friendly structures, especially if they capture waste heat and reuse it for other purposes. Many companies are starting to value going green as an important part of appealing to customers, and using green structures ties into this.
Most modular data centers have steel construction. This steel is easy to recycle and repurpose for other needs later, while other components can often be as green as possible. All of this adds up to an environmentally-friendly performance.
Modular data centers are broadly predictable and reliable facilities. By using standardized parts and predictable designs, it’s easy to repair and replace systems as necessary.
Their exteriors are also usually strong enough to resist the weather for many years with minimal maintenance, while proper servers have a long functional lifespan.
Here are some of the main types of modular data centers.
Containerized or Portable
Containerized and portable data centers usually use shipping container exteriors, which are durable and weather-resistant for long-term use. Some of these are suitable for indoor deployment.
Containerized centers offer several advantages, including being largely self-contained and easy to move around as necessary. Some of them have doors or hatches on the side that offers easy access to the other side of the components, and most have a hallway for interior access.
It’s possible to string together multiple containerized systems into a single larger data center without having to build a larger structure to house them.
Portable centers are best for mild to moderate needs. They don’t have the same density potential as modular buildings, but many companies don’t need that kind of density, either.
Portable systems can be as small as a few feet around, making them ideal for deploying in dense urban environments.
Prefabricated or Modular Building
Prefabricated and modular buildings are purpose-built to a company’s unique needs, often with clear sections to remove so the building can expand as needed.
Prefab setups are easy to customize to the specific needs of each client, making them the best choice for high-density data center requirements. They often include better cooling systems, larger power supplies, and more room to move components in and out.
Most of these buildings make use of parts and walls that are easy to assemble, significantly reducing the construction time compared to making a regular building. This speed of deployment can offer significant cost savings, especially for companies with urgent expansion needs.
The primary downside of modular buildings is that they’re permanent once in place, so you can’t easily pick them up and move them to a new site.
That makes them less viable than portable centers in some areas, including urban areas where putting in a whole building could be challenging.
Skid-based systems include data center and power equipment on top of metal skids that you can drop into place. Unlike containerized and prefabricated systems, these don’t include walls, so they’re not suitable for outdoor deployment.
Skids are an easy way to ship and install components in bulk rather than trying to install and assemble them on-site. They’re also a good way to convert existing open spaces into data centers with minimal fuss.
Skids are especially effective as temporary solutions. They can often fit in small or unusually-shaped areas, offering instant expansion to capabilities while you wait for a permanent structure.
Alternatively, skids can work to maximize the use of existing space. For example, companies with warehouses can install skids in a portion of their storage facilities. This can near-instantly provide significant computing power.
Here are some of the better companies that offer modular data centers.
Microsoft’s Azure Datacenters are a little unusual. Rather than running any server configuration, they focus specifically on Azure cloud systems.
These data centers also have the unusual feature of allowing fully online, sometimes online, or offline connectivity, so customers can access cloud-level computing power while minimizing potential security risks.
Zella is a straightforward provider of modular data centers, offering your choice of 10ft, 20ft, or 40ft shipping containers that run multiples of their Zella Pro 38 micro data center system.
They don’t have as many options as other companies because they run a single data center, but they offer fast and predictable deployment for minor to moderate needs.
Vertiv is an indoor-focused company offering a range of modules, from small micro data centers to full enclosures. They also offer larger shipping container-based structures suitable for moderate computing requirements.
Baselayer has limited structure configurations, but they focus on indoor-ready systems that can help fit in dense urban environments that might not work for other modular designs.
Baselayer’s CORE design uses a rare raised-floor construction plan to maximize effective space, which is a significant point in its favor.
Schneider Electric offers a range of data center modules, from individual micro data centers suitable for small businesses to larger centers and configurable data halls.
Schneider Electric’s pre-configured modular rooms are particularly notable since you can customize both size and shape, and they support their larger structures with dedicated power modules.
Eaton has a simpler approach to modular data centers, with most of their options following a similar shipping container-based build.
While they’re not as flexible as some other services, they do allow add-ons like build rooms, chiller modules, and expandable distribution systems. Eaton is a good choice for buyers who need moderate power and minimal complexity.
BMarko Structures isn’t very well-known outside the data center industry, but they stand out from the competition with their emphasis on construction services.
Unlike some other companies, which purchase structures elsewhere, BMarko manufactures their steel containers in-house and has better control over delivery timetables.
HPE offers modular data centers ranging from small units suitable for cloud deployment on 10-foot square bases to larger structures for heavier needs.
HPE’s options range from 4 to 21 IT racks, with a linkable design that makes it easy to expand and continue accessing components as necessary.
Dell focuses on fully-customized data centers, installing most facilities within 30 days of site readiness.
Dell also claims an 8x reduction in cost compared to traditional models, which is a significant reduction in all costs, and that’s on top of their existing brand recognition and support services.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do modular data centers only come in shipping containers?
No. Shipping containers are one of the most popular options for modular data centers, but there are many other options to fit different environments and company needs.
Are modular data centers only used temporarily?
No. While some companies only use them temporarily, it’s entirely possible to use a modular data center as a permanent facility.
Are modular data centers more expensive?
No. Modular data centers are usually less expensive than competing options. Since you can expand them as needed, there’s usually no wasted space.
Are modular data centers secure?
Yes. Modular data centers use both physical and electronic security systems to secure their premises. Many companies also install them in larger secure compounds that host other buildings, which adds an extra layer of security.
Are your hardware and design choices limited?
No. Modular data centers generally allow the same choices as traditional data centers, so you can arrange them in the configurations that meet your needs best.
Are modular data centers able to scale?
Yes. Modular data centers can scale as much as your budget and real estate allow, from small individual centers to major networking hubs.
Modular data centers are an excellent way for modern companies to meet computing needs. Whether you want to host applications or websites locally or provide powerful computing in remote areas, modular centers can get it done.
As if those attributes weren’t enough, modular centers also offer faster deployment and lower costs compared to traditional construction, all without sacrificing their ability to meet local construction codes.
Ultimately, modular data centers are the best choice for all but the largest data center needs. They’re faster, cheaper, and easier than traditional construction.