Edge to drive growth in modular builds

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Vertiv’s Viktor Petik provides an insight into the growing market for pre-fabricated modular data centres and claims that deployments will reshape data centre economics…

Products that just make better sense from almost every conceivable angle are prevented from reaching their full potential – primarily because people prefer to stick with what they know. A good example in the data centre industry is prefabricated modular (PFM) data centres. 

PFM involves assembling units or modules of data centre infrastructure in factories and then shipping them to the site. It is no more complex (in fact it is often simpler) than the data centre builds we are used to – but it does require a different mindset. Fortunately mindsets are starting to shift. 

PFM technology is gaining trust and traction. Multi-MW sites are beginning to emerge — from companies including EdgeConneX to T-Systems — using PFM building-blocks to speed construction and drive efficiencies. But PFM technology is still not as widely understood and adopted as it should be, even though it is broadly acknowledged as being a more cost and time-efficient way to deploy new data centre capacity.

Edge to drive growth

This underlying inertia towards ‘old world’ models means PFM data centres still occupy a relatively small proportion of the overall data centre market – but that share is set to increase. According to industry analyst 451 Research, the market for PFM data centres is set to expand at a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.4% through 2021 when it will have reached $4.4bn (£3.5bn). 

“PFM methodology is becoming the preferred way to expand and build new data centre capacity, turnkey or critical subsystems. Underpinned by industrial processes, it has distinct advantages in terms of quality control, installation speed and build consistency,” says Daniel Bizo, principal analyst at 451 Research 

The tech sector is also not alone in seeing the potential of PFM facilities. Other industries such as pharmaceuticals, in addition to oil and gas, have invested in PFM buildings to house complex machinery within strict timelines and often in difficult locations like remote oil fields or offshore platforms. 

Now, with evolving requirements for data processing capabilities across sectors and geographies, the PFM data centre is more relevant than ever. For example, growth in edge computing is likely to play an increasing role in the future PFM demand. Edge PFM deployments could range from a 5MW facility in a city to a single, hardened-rack next to a 5G mast on a building rooftop.

The benefits of PFM

So if there is so much potential inherent within PFM, why are more organisations not using the approach? Often, the benefits of PFM facilities have been overlooked due to misconceptions around the technology. 

However, the PFM approach is well suited to the rapid scaling, capital-constrained nature of todays’ tech landscape. PFM data centres can be implemented and scaled at speed, making them a good fit for future edge demands driven by IoT for example. 

Their capability extends far beyond that of simple containers. They are far more than the first wave of PFM products offered by Sun Microsystems and others, which were based around ISO containers.

Current designs of PFM facilities encompass all kinds of data infrastructure, from rows, to rooms to full facilities and power and thermal infrastructure. For example, specialist PFM units can be deployed to add additional power (UPS) or cooling capacity to an existing site that may have sufficient whitespace but is restrained from a thermal perspective. This ‘plug and play’ approach offers flexible implementation, but also enables data centres to push closer to businesses and consumers in previously inaccessible locations. 

Fast deployment and lower TCO

An interesting aspect of the rapid growth that is predicted in PFM deployments will be the way they can reshape data centre economics. PFM data centres are not just flexible in their design but also as a financial option. One of the main benefits of them is that these data centres can be assembled off site to enable faster deployment at a lower TCO. This means data centre professionals do not need to consider the additional costs that are often associated
with faster delivery.

In fact, the economics of PFM are so attractive that these data centres can change the cost-benefit analysis regarding the augmentation of an existing facility when compared with a new build. 

This possibility is so profound that PFM data centres could enable an organisation to migrate a data centre to a more desirable location at about the same cost as expanding and updating an existing one. Ultimately, this gives far more control over how businesses align their data centre estate to their commercial need.

Likewise PFM solutions can readily meet the security needs of today’s data centre. Their portable nature has at times led to the misconception that they are not as secure as traditional designs, partly due to the fact that container-like designs and micro-data centres can be transported on the back of a truck. Yet this is far from the case. The sorts of physical security requirements for a conventional build are just as likely to be in place in a PFM facility. 

In addition, it can be argued that PFM facilities are less prone to failures due to the crucial testing and commissioning undertaken in factory conditions. These conditions help shorten the deployment time frame and improve the predictability of both schedule and cost performance. Furthermore, the risk of maintenance problems is smaller than other approaches as components are pre-integrated. 

This reduces the chance of components not being installed properly. Furthermore, the main resiliency certification organisation for the data centre industry, Uptime Institute, has developed its Tier-Ready programme to streamline the certification of facilities built in part, or in total, using PFM components. 

It is clear that PFM data centres are yet to receive the full recognition they deserve – largely due to misconceptions and inertia rather than any tangible issues with the technology. These are not solutions designed to an old world model, that gains merit simply because it’s been around for a long time. 

Fundamentally, PFM designs offer an ideal solution for building out efficient, agile and globally consistent capacity from the core to the edge. Eventually, a technology that is still perceived as an outlier or disruptor by some parts of the industry, could and should become the default option for all new builds.

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