Today, when someone mentions “cloud” or “virtualization,” people generally have preconceived notions about its true definition and function. The same can be said about modular and prefabricated data center solutions. At a high level, they’re single, pre-wired systems that allow for quick deployment, lowering the total cost of ownership (TCO), and can be customized to meet most data center technical requirements.

The evolution of modular data centers has risen to the forefront over the last few years. Enterprises needing to quickly deploy projects to support commerce are looking at prefabrication as a strong option for initiatives that need to be up and running within an abbreviated timeline. Data centers also require innovative mission critical power, and thermal management solutions that ensure optimization of IT assets. Modular data center solutions offer scalability in a controlled environment and can be quickly assembled with lower construction costs.


Growing Demands of the Data Center

With the expansion of our digital economy and big data, demand and space requirements for data centers continue to grow. Simultaneously, enterprises are doing everything possible to reduce the cost of constructing a traditional data center. Why? Because they’re typically a large capital investment, and businesses are ready to implement a different methodology, a different architecture, and a different type of approach to construction.

Today’s data center builds must reduce project timelines, which is especially true for colocation service providers worldwide. Enterprises also want to reduce their lead-time and create a data center that drives efficiency while maintaining reliability and allowing for a pay-as-you-grow expansion process. That’s where prefabrication makes a difference.


Introduction to Prefabricated Solutions

Prefabrication refers to the practice of assembling components in a factory or manufacturing site and transporting complete assemblies or sub-assemblies to the construction site where the modular data center is to be located. This creates a high capacity, repeatable, and scalable solution that’s in a controlled environment. In addition, the systems are tested as a whole rather than as incomplete parts, ensuring that what arrives onsite is immediately ready for deployment.

Another benefit of prefabricated solutions is that they increase the speed of deployment, often reducing deployment time by a third while lowering the total operating cost. How? They’re unique systems that interoperate properly, achieving high levels of efficiency and reliability because they’re designed as a system. Prefabricated data centers also tend to be easier to support. In other words, because they are delivered as an architecture, they have a single point of contact for support and deployment.

Within the data center, prefabrication can take on many forms. In its infancy, prefabricated data centers took the form of ISO shipping containers. Now it’s a concept that comes in different shapes, sizes, and applications. From the entire data center (an all-in-one solution that combines the IT, mechanical, electrical, fire suppression, and other critical monitoring systems) all the way down to prefabricated racks and enclosures.

According to 451 Research, there’s been a significant increase in prefabricated deployments over the past three years. The market increased from less than a half percent in 2012 to approximately 1% in 2014. 451 Research projects a 30% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) increase as various prefabricated solution offerings continue to permeate the market.


Prefabricated Power Solutions

There’s now interest from data center operators to have a prefabricated solution for power. Original equipment manufacturers are meeting that need with prefabricated power solutions. They’re fully designed and integrated solutions that arrive system tested and require minimal assembly. They have a low TCO, can be customized to meet most technical requirements, and deploy quickly so facilities can add units as they grow and integrate the entire power train.

A fit for enterprises in health care, education, finance, retail, and transportation, these modular solutions allow operators to complete their data center builds in approximately one third of the time traditional installations require. And thanks to high levels of efficiency, up to 99%, these prefabricated power solutions are highly efficient and do not expose data centers to unnecessary risk. These systems also offer superior control, both with a human machine interface (HMI) as well as integration into various remote monitoring platforms — whether they are building management, data center infrastructure management (DCIM), or other management systems themselves.

There are several configurations of prefabricated power management solutions:

  • Connected. The connected configuration is a high quality, tested design that directly connects UPS modules, switchgear, static switches, controls, and any monitoring or HMI components, forming a single continuous system. It’s ideal for permanent medium, large, hyperscale, and multi-tenant/colocation data centers that are building new facilities, expanding or retrofitting existing facilities or problem solving to achieve optimal operations. The connected system gets to market faster by incorporating direct buss connections, simplifying installation by eliminating the need for pipe and wire.
  • Centralized. The centralized configuration incorporates a UPS, switchboard, batteries, and all interconnections on a skid platform for fast deployment. Available in convenient sizes up to 550 kilowatts (kVA), it allows operators to modularly add capacity as necessary, working well in all sizes of data centers. Similar to the connected system, it can be used when building new facilities, expanding or retrofitting existing facilities or problem solving to achieve optimal operations.
  • Contained. The contained configuration is a single container with a UPS, switchgear, batteries, HVAC units, and all associated fire and safety equipment inside. It can be deployed quickly to expand existing power capacity, incorporated into greenfield modular facilities or used in disaster recovery situations.

Building a new facility or expanding existing power capacity can be challenging. It needs to be done quickly and cost-effectively through a quality product that will last — a combination that doesn’t typically fit together. Prefabricated power solutions combine several products to support shorter lead times, faster deployment, and reduced risk during design and implementation. Since it’s a pre-configured setup that is tested as a system before deployment, data center operators are getting consistent, repeatable designs that can be mirrored across multi-phase and multi-location sites.


Origins Of Prefabricated Data Centers

In 2003, the first iteration of a containerized data center concept arose in a white paper titled, “Petabyte Box for Internet Archive,” written by Bruce Baumgart and Matt Laue. This document essentially laid out the design of the electrical and cooling architectures needed to support IT systems while noting the different costs for each one. Spurred from the white paper was a great deal of modular innovation and some of the first iterations of data centers contained in International Standards Organization (ISO) shipping containers.

Two years later, the concept of prefabricated data centers transitioned from an internal concept to something commercially available — an all-in-one system combining the IT and supporting electrical and mechanical systems required for specific environments to operate together optimally.

The problem with these first iterations was that it led to a common misconception — a modular data center had to be something based upon an ISO shipping container. The perception then became that a prefabricated solution had to be mobile.

In actuality, this scenario is just one version of the concept — there are other ways to build a prefabricated system. Some models must be containerized either in an ISO platform or a custom platform based on the environment they’ll be placed in. Currently, about 50% of the market has these types of systems — something with a shell around it that provides the benefits of prefabrication but can be put in an indoor or outdoor setting.