The data boom is here … to stay. Internet traffic continues to explode with more data-rich content, and according to a 2012 report by Cisco, mobile data usage is expected to increase 13-fold between 2012 and 2017. Much of this data is a result of what Gartner Research calls the “Nexus of Forces,” or the convergence of social, mobile, and cloud information resulting in an upward wave of nearly unstoppable data usage. The demand for additional data center capacity is greater than ever, and shows no sign of reaching a capacity limit.

As data center managers scramble to find a data center solution that offers improvement and a legitimate return on investment, a smorgasbord of options from modular to containerized to field-built are at their disposal. But, with all the hype, opinion, and speculation bombarding them, how do data center managers know whether their final choice will make the most impact immediately and withstand the ongoing tidal wave of data usage and changing technologies?

This question is becoming more frequently asked in the data center industry. But with each answer comes a trail of misconceptions that must be demystified.


A common misperception of modular data centers is that only the components are pre-fabricated. However, modular data centers are built from the ground up, with entire IT/mechanical/electrical infrastructures designed per client need.

Another misconception: modular data centers are not as flexible or customizable as containerized or field-built solutions. On the contrary, a primary benefit of modular data centers is that they can be customized and built offsite to meet a specific need. This flexibility allows data center managers the opportunity to design a solution according to current and projected data usage and to optimize spending efficiencies matching their capital to construction.

This point is substantiated by the frequency with which data center operators adopt prefabricated strategies, as in the case of Digital Realty, whose chief technology officer, Jim Smith, recently echoed the fact in an announcement regarding the company’s POD 3.0 or advanced modular architecture. Said Smith, “by pre-assembling electrical and mechanical room components, while retaining the flexibility that customers require of a customized data center, POD 3.0 once again puts Digital Realty customers at the forefront of data center development innovation."


One drawback to containerized data centers is that they can’t be customized. These types of data centers are designed to be catalog products to handle capacity for a single purpose. Containerized solutions are thought of as plug-and-play installations and are therefore simpler to implement. However, one drawback to these solutions is the lack of customization, which can be limiting.

Modular data centers can be constructed to look exactly like any building built in the field — and can be customized.

A common misconception is the thought that general contractors are experienced builders in the industry and therefore field building is a better methodology. But those in the know are highly aware that Fortune 500 companies like Google, Microsoft, eBay, and Amazon were a few of the earliest adopters of containerized solutions, while some of largest colocation companies standardize their offering on a variation of prefabricated or modularized strategy. In short, those whose core competency centers around data choose some version of factory-built, and for good reason. The fact is, modular data centers allow general contractors in the mission critical market to excel and offer their clients data center capacity in the customized fashion they need to separate them from would-be competitors.


Unlike containerized or field-built solutions, modular off-site construction delivers three main benefits: speed, performance, and cost-containment.

Building off-site delivers up-and-running, highly aesthetic modular data centers sooner. The mere fact that everything is factory-fit and tested prior to shipping saves expensive time in the field during commissioning. Also, as installation construction teams become more familiar with modular deployments, their speed of onsite installation increases as well.

Optimal performance is more quickly achieved from a modular data center vs. a solution built from scratch because design specifications are tested and verified before the unit ships, thereby delivering immediate quality assurance.

Cost-containment is a significant reason to build offsite. Few interruptions and delays — the usual culprit behind budget overages — occur when building in a factory environment. Additionally, when a business determines exactly what they want their data center capacity to look like and apply a factory approach to building that facility, they have a very accurate picture of how much it will cost. All material and labor costs are known entities, thereby mitigating unplanned soft costs that are commonplace in field construction. By building offsite, owners and operators gain an advantage by saving money and freeing up capital to build other projects.

Modular data centers are all too often positioned as a conceptual solution, overshadowed by its containerized and field-built predecessors. The truth is that the modular model is one of the most versatile and cost-saving investments data center managers can make for their businesses.


The University of Colorado and National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) needed a data center to deploy the Janus supercomputer — a 184 teraflop cluster — on its Boulder campus. Dell, Critical Facilities Technology, and Data Centers Delivered were tapped to co-design and produce a custom-built modular data center.

The main benefit of the co-design process was that it allowed the use of a holistic design approach that matched the facility to the system. Instead of addressing each element in the facility separately and then maximizing each component based on their individual budget, all resources were pooled and the approach focused on providing the most efficient solution while staying within the total budgeted cost. Further, the holistic approach involved examining and optimizing every element available including structural, civil, electrical, mechanical, available cooling technology, local climate conditions, and IT technology. This knowledge allowed the team to maximize the efficiency of the space (Figure 1).

“We were extremely excited to collaborate with Dell and Data Centers Delivered on such a challenging project,” said Robert Strong of Critical Facilities Technology. “We knew that we were on an especially aggressive time schedule, with a very sophisticated array of power and cooling systems to be implemented. The only way we could accomplish such a daunting task was through the co-design process which allowed us to construct a modular data center in record time compared to typical large-scale installations.”

The facility design incorporated an IT load of just over 1 megawatt (MW) at over 32 kilowatt (kW)/rack density for the compute cabinets. The design target PUE for the facility was 1.2, and the measured PUE for the first year of operation was 1.14 (Figure 2). Designed as a standalone structure, the data center can be expanded in the future via additional data center modules. The current total footprint of the data center is 2,277 sq ft, which includes approximately 1,500 sq ft of data center raised floor “white space” and an additional 750 sq ft of integrated space to house the mechanical and electrical infrastructure. The data center, which incorporates a custom APC Hot Aisle Containment system with close-coupled in-row cooling, is supported by a water cooled chiller plant, with a plate-and-frame heat exchanger for free cooling.

The Janus facility was completely pre-engineered and pre-fabricated off-site to minimize work at the project site. Production time in Data Center Delivered’s factory was 13 weeks. Following factory testing, the modules were disconnected and loaded on tractor trailers for transport to the jobsite.

Upon arriving on site, the data center was rigged into place on a prepared concrete foundation in the span of just nine hours. External connections for the data center enclosure walls and roof were also completed on the first day in order to swiftly weatherproof the facility. Internal mechanical and electrical connections were completed over the next few days, while local representatives for fire protection and security systems completed work on remote monitoring capabilities. To further compress the time required from delivery to turnover, final cabling connections for the Janus supercomputer were completed in parallel with these efforts. Overall, the timeline from initial production release to completed site commissioning and hardware testing was a minimal 18 weeks (Figure 3).

Designing and deploying a facility in this manner resulted in a number of significant advantages over the containerized and field-build alternatives:

  • Time savings allowing for both the development and deployment of the facility to take place in the same quarter.
  • Enhanced performance efficiencies gained as a result of synergies realized through the facility and system design and production operations.
  • Lower implementation risk due to comprehensive pre-test processes conducted on the data center prior to delivery.

According to Michael Oberg of NCAR, “Although the historical arc of this project took us through a fair number of facility and system designs, the end result has proven itself to be more flexible and cost-effective than we originally thought possible.”

In summary, customizing the data center allowed the University of Colorado to design for their particular need. Aesthetics, PUE, life cycle costing, TCO, adaptability, scalability, capital expenses (CAPEX) and operating expenses (OPEX) considerations were all an integral part of the process, but a successful outcome driven by a holistic and malleable approach truly demystified any perceptions the university had of modular data center construction.