It’s always interesting to ask a friend what they were doing during a significant event in history. Do you recall where you were when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989? What were you doing when the World Series earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay Area in that same year? More on point, where were you when you first heard rumblings about a modular data center? How much if anything has really changed since that time for modular design/build and associated solutions?


What began as an idea to build a data center inside a standard shipping container has since evolved to a market made up of hundreds of suppliers that offer everything from containers to prefabricated modules that can support IT/networking, power, and/or cooling infrastructure in one or many pieces. Why? Proponents point to the increasing creation and adoption of cloud computing, Big Data, and distributed environments, arguing all of this requires a design that is agile and responsive to future growth. They claim the conventional approach to data center design just isn’t cutting it in terms of time, cost, and efficiency.

With traditional data center design, the IT, mechanical, and electrical environments are designed for the organization’s needs as they stand today and in the future. This approach is all about anticipating business and IT requirements over 10 to 15 years and provisioning for this — a challenging and costly task. Modular suppliers claim their prefabricated, repeatable solutions solve for this as they can quickly support increasing IT workloads and business demands with lower capital requirements and higher operational efficiencies versus a conventional build.


This sounds good, but are organizations buying it? Per their 2013 Data Center Industry Survey, Uptime Institute indicates modular design/build is resonating with a specific subset of operators with the rest of the market “unconvinced.” What has or hasn’t occurred within the modular market that has led to this current unconvinced state?

To shed light on this, below are a few observations of the modular data center market as it has evolved over the last few years from how customer needs and requirements drive many a vendors’ modular (and unique) designs to how vendors are answering the call.


Let’s first define “modular” and highlight its more distinguishing characteristics in the context of data centers — what it is and what it isn’t. A modular product is a pre-engineered, factory built, and pre-tested module providing one or more of IT, power, or cooling. These modules use a standardized, repeatable design and can provide for site and/or user specific customization options. Once onsite, the product is fairly easy to assemble consuming less time and less effort vs. a conventional brick and mortar build. A modular product can be fully enclosed (“containerized”) or skid mounted. What isn’t modular? A modular product isn’t synonymous with a container. Modular isn’t a traditional building.

With some context in place, here are those observations with one market prediction.


One surprise has been the continued ingenuity of data center operators, consultants, and contractors in asking for different solutions. One of the premises of the modular data center was to create standardization and repeatability in data center builds. We see customers decide their strategy based upon their unique spectrum of preferences, including first cost, operating cost, time to deploy, deployment and operational convenience, risk tolerance, and site constraints. As a result, standardization has proven true only within each customer’s operation. 

The wide variety of form factors and deployment models is seen throughout the industry. While many suppliers offer solutions based around “container” or “enclosure” modules, others have branched out. For example, Fidelity Investments introduced CenterCore, which fabricates data center elements offsite, but then assembles them into a multi-story data center on location. Emerson Network Power and Facebook collaborated to develop a modular approach based upon a “flat pack” design with many standard pieces assembled onsite for different needs.

In just the past few years, Active Power has deployed more than a dozen physically and operationally distinct modular IT and power designs. Some of them are standard offerings, while some started there and were modified significantly based on customer requirements. In other cases, designs began from a clean sheet of paper once specific customer needs were identified.  We have built open air power skids deployed in the Great Plains that brave cold, harsh winters and fully enclosed, air conditioned systems exposed to the scorching sun of Phoenix and the humidity of the Amazon rainforest. Others are fully enclosed systems tucked into climate-controlled buildings in Texas. All of these presented significant challenges and head-scratching moments during the design phase, but nonetheless made sense given the preferences and needs, weighing money, time, space, and peace of mind of the customer.

Few of these modular deployments have been “purely” modular. The most common has been a modular power system supporting a traditional IT environment. Often, the modular power system is a retrofit to an existing building that moves the electrical plant outside of the building (into the parking lot or onto the roof) that frees up valuable interior space that can be reused for IT expansion.


The diversity in designs available from vendors and demanded by customers has been both a help and hindrance to the industry. Operators that have had an outside driver to adopt a modular approach — typically being out of time or space to build a traditional data center — have found an industry with the flexibility and creativity to design a solution that does exactly what they need it to do. This has helped overcome any reticence to adopting a modular solution by giving them a comfort level and reducing the number of trade-offs required.

By contrast, some customers evaluating modular approaches, after hearing all the industry buzz, have been overwhelmed by the variety available to them. The modular option becomes just one of many in a grueling design process along with new builds, retrofits, various forms of colocation, and other choices. 

One way vendors have attempted to alleviate these concerns is with the introduction of standard designs to help simplify the selection process. For example, Active Power offers five standard options for North America and eight more for Europe and Asia. Schneider Electric recently released 29 distinct reference designs for their modular data center lineup. These standard designs provide a starting point for the design process that reduces complexity and shortens duration.


One-time use shipping containers first served as the popular infrastructure to house a modular data center. As the market grew, modular data center suppliers soon discovered that installing large heavy objects in a confined space presented challenges that surpassed the benefit of utilizing a shipping container for this application. Shipping containers were difficult to modify and once modified were no longer a shipping container that could adhere to ISO standards.

As a result, most manufacturers turned to custom, purpose-built enclosures and discovered they were a more reliable and easy to assemble alternative. Suppliers have also been trying to develop the most reliable, efficient, and well-designed modular data centers to convince the market their modules are just as good as a traditional data center. Extensive engineering, modeling, and testing have gone into strengthening structural integrity; optimizing the cooling systems; improving hot aisle access; adding the ability to repopulate the enclosure with new server applications; and lengthening the useful life of the container. This has increased functionality, efficiency, and reliability and increased costs, construction time, and complexity, degrading much of the initial value proposition of the modular data center.


Another observation worth calling attention to is the myth that engineers and contractors aren’t needed for a modular deployment project: since integration, startup, and testing are conducted in a factory setting prior to shipment, the need for these sorts of professionals is reduced. In our experience, this is far from the truth.

Skilled consultants, engineers, and contractors still play a valuable and necessary role in designing the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and IT systems to meet customer needs. Even a collection of power, IT, and cooling modules requires significant work laying out the site, designing the electrical and plumbing interconnects, and developing comparative cost and capacity scenarios. Further, all are still required to incorporate the equipment and complete the installation.

Although factory testing will alleviate many of the problems usually incurred, the fact remains this is still an on-site construction project complete with site inspections, third-party commissioning agents, and authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) approvals. The modular approach helps to simplify, but does not eliminate the required interactions and involvement of all of these entities. There is no substitute for local experience in expertise that the engineering and contracting community provides.


How does all of this play out? Much of what customers have said they wanted and suppliers are providing is contrary to the initial promise of the modular data center concept. Off-site fabrication will always be a great benefit, but the robustness and complexity — not to mention the physical size, weight, and on-site integration requirements — of many current approaches has made them hard to distinguish from a traditional building. This trend has and will continue to limit the market away from the mainstream.

There are indications, though, that attitudes may be changing. Recently, customers have shown less interest in purchasing a modular enclosure that can be repopulated with different server applications over a 20-year life with an interior identical to a traditional build. Instead, they are viewing the enclosure as a one-time use housing for a particular application, such that when that IT need has expired, the entire module — servers and enclosure — is removed, replaced by another module designed for a specific application, and recycled upstream. 

This trend could have modular manufacturers rethink their attention to the robustness and features of the modules, significantly affecting the form and function of present day designs by making them less expensive and less complicated to design and install. We expect in the coming years this approach will renew the promise of the modular data center and broaden the reach of the concept.

Fast forward a few years and these enclosures start to feel more like server racks today that are suitable for the job at hand, purchased as needed, and expected to be disposed of in a few years. These new designs may so little resemble the shipping containers of the past decade that new customers may not even recognize they are buying a modular data center. The likely result is a significant reduction in costs of modular builds and a big shift from the “unconvinced” towards the “committed.”


A lack of standardization compounded by too many choices and a desire to make modular data centers feel like traditional builds has created barriers to adoption and is keeping those who are “unconvinced” in that camp. With so many options and a diluted value proposition, we are seeing increased customer fatigue and general malaise over the entire modular idea.

The opportunity exists for suppliers to help customers overcome their challenges through simplification of product and positioning and a return to the simple and inexpensive concepts at the heart of the modular idea. The benefits are clear — capital preservation, speed to deployment, and operational efficiencies.