Modular Data Centers Take Shape

The data center at Bryant University developed, as many do, on a piecemeal basis. A server here, a server there, until the Smithfield, R.I., school had 78 servers and other equipment scattered across its 420-acre campus. Bryant is now undertaking a $900,000 data center project using a modular design—an idea it thinks merits top grades.

A modular data center features a preconfigured collection of servers, storage devices, and power and cooling equipment that can be quickly set up and easily maintained at a lower cost than a custom-made data center.

If this sounds like a far-out idea, consider that IBM and Hewlett-Packard each have modular data center offerings, and by June, Sun Microsystems is scheduled to make available Project Blackbox—a data center assembled inside a shipping container that can be delivered to a customer on a truck, parked next to the customer’s building, plugged in and turned on.

For its part, Bryant brought in IBM and American Power Conversion, which jointly build preconfigured centers, of approximately 500 to 1,000 square feet.

HP’s “ship to site” program lets a customer make one call to order a modular data center. When a bank whose branches were taken out of service by Hurricane Katrina wanted a temporary branch, HP shipped a modular center “with a drive-through window and everything,” says Belinda Wilson, executive director of business continuity and availability solutions.

One hitch: While modular data centers may help customers add capacity quickly, says Andreas Antonopoulos, a senior vice president at Nemertes Research, they don’t address the problem of access to electricity, particularly in urban areas. In such locales, the local power company may not be able to deliver the necessary juice, Antonopoulos says.

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