The Rise of the Modular Data Center


The Green Grid has produced a useful guide to what it calls Containerized Modular Data Center Facilities, which recognizes the increasing interest in modular design and how it can help improve energy efficiency in data centers. I’ve tackled this subject in a previous blog but chairing the recent Green Data Center conference in London, I had the chance to hear in detail about two very different approaches to modularized design.

The first example was Verne Global’s new data center campus in Iceland. In a project we documented in our Green Data Center report (soon to be updated), Verne Global is taking advantage of Iceland’s climate and copious hydroelectric and geothermal energy resources to create a low-emission, energy efficient data center. The data center facilities are being supplied by Colt, which is providing pre-fabricated data center modules built in its factory in northeast England. It’s using standardized components and production line manufacturing techniques to deliver energy efficient and adaptable data centers in less than four months from contract signing to onsite commissioning. The modules are expected to work to a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) of around 1.15 in the advantageous Icelandic environment.

While Colt’s modules are able to meet the variable demands of a co-location data center, a more specialized approach to modularization is being pioneered by Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI). The background to this project is the investment the Taiwanese government is making to prepare the country’s businesses for the impact of cloud computing. For example, a number of projects are looking at the cloud delivery of government services. It is also looking at how cloud computing can drive innovation in the Taiwanese IT and services sector, which brings us to the green data center project. ITRI has been tasked with developing an energy efficient modular data center that can support cloud computing.

As Paul Sun from ITRI explained, building an energy-efficient data center in subtropical regions presents significant challenges; with a typical humidity level of 70 percent, Taiwan is a far cry from Icelandic conditions. To achieve the target PUE of less than 1.3 they had to rethink how a data center is built and how it operates. The radical idea behind the project is not to think of the data center as a building to house IT equipment, but as the computer itself. This led to the development of a virtual management layer for the building facilities and an approach that seeks to unify the facilities and IT views of the data center. ITRI has been able to come up with a data center design that optimizes both infrastructure and server capability. The servers themselves are stripped down to the essentials including the removal of individual power supplies and fans. A direct DC power supply was also used to increase power efficiency. However, high density computing in a subtropical climate requires efficient cooling and this was provided by liquid cooling at the CPU level.

Much of what ITRI did in this impressive demonstration project will be out of reach for enterprise data centers, but the project shows the way cloud computing brings opportunities for efficient data center design. It also shares with Colt’s approach a rapid development time – 6 months from planning to operation – and provision of shippable modules than can be quickly installed onsite.

While Colt is developing modules for the mainstream data center market, ITRI is pushing the boundaries to understand how the data center can be optimized for cloud computing and energy efficiency. However, both projects are part of an important development that will have an increasing influence on the shape of the data center.

Article by Eric Woods, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.



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