Data Center Ready-Mix. Just Add Power.

September 10, 2012 2 Comments »

Brief History

As the digital age progressed, significant advancements in information technology were followed by an increased demand for information technology based services.  Many data center owners and operators soon faced a rapidly changing consumer environment and an increased demand for space, power and cooling growth at a rate faster than most businesses were prepared to respond to.  By the early dot com bubble ages, there was a rush to build to meet the demand.

Post dot com bubble gives us the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.  Many companies reacted too quickly in order to meet the increasing demand, resulting in the over build of data center space and infrastructure in the face of the excess supply of data center environments as the dot com bubble burst.  Some may speculate that the overbuild was a factor in the demise of some once great companies.  For the period immediately afterwards, the industry spent time growing into the over-built data centers with a healthy fear of new construction and rapid deployment.

Fast forward to today, and the demand for IT continues to grow again at a rate that data center owners and operators struggle to keep up with.  This growth along with some historical mistakes must have been a contributor to the containerized revolution that started years ago, and that we continue to see today.  Many attribute the efforts of Sun and their Project Blackbox as the start of the rise in notoriety of the data center in a box concept.  While Sun may have enhanced the popularization of the technology, portable data center technology had been around for a while.   For industry veterans, bedtime stories of the strange, now seemingly extinct creature called InfraStruXure Express, one form of a datacenter in a box developed by APC, are probably not uncommon.  Needless to say the data center in a box concept has had its challenges in gaining mass popularly.  Despite the critics, we see a handful of manufacturers, such as SGI, HP and Dell that tout the capability of providing such a solution.  While perhaps different flavors, the basic concept remains the same, a data center in a box.

Benefits and Challenges

The data center in a box concept presented a tremendous amount of potential benefit.  For those looking for immediate space, power, and cooling, the data center in a box presented itself as a very attractive solution.  Containerized solutions could be deployed significantly faster than a brick and mortar build, often at a fraction of the equivalent cost of a traditional build.  The technology promised immediate turn-key availability of rack space, critical power, and critical cooling.

Early deployment of the containerized technology had its challenges.  Solutions that were “generator ready” did not lend itself well to solve solutions for facilities where base building generator systems were nearing or already at capacity.  Thanks to manufacturers various manufacturers those solutions have been well developed over the years, and solutions can now be had with this problem solved.

In addition to technical challenges, there was the practical challenge that many of these containers still required human interaction for maintenance activities such as equipment installation, cabling, etc.  The nature of these space effective solutions naturally made for configurations that were non-conducive to how data centers were being operated at the time.  Racks provided in containerized solutions often did not have the flexibility to deploy a variety of hardware equipment that were required for growth and often limited operators to racked form factor equipment only.  In short, the options lacked the flexibility of the traditional data center that owners and operators were seeking.

Game Changing Events

During this time, significant developments in the data center market were the game changing events that were further driving growth in this type of deployment strategy.  There are three key, arguably related, events that can be attributed to making the containerized solution attractive.

1.  Virtualization

As data centers moved to virtual environments, the legacy need to have equipment that was readily available to see and touch was eliminated.  The acceptance of virtualization was the important psychological shift that needed to happen to allow for the widespread implementation of non-location specific architectures.  Understand that part of the big revelation that happened with virtualization is that you didn’t need your applications tied to a physical component.  Once that psychological hurdle was overcome, the data center could essentially be anywhere, including sites unseen.

2.  Cloud Computing Platform

With cloud computing adoption, many businesses were able to gain freedom from the requirement for equipment to be located within a specific data center environment.  Virtualization may have led to the critical acceptance of the non-location specific data center deployment concept.  This was a critical hurdle to overcome.

3.  Low Cost, High Speed Connectivity

During the dot com boom, many telecommunications companies laid down an extensive communication backbone.  Advances in technology also allowed for reduction of latency.  The result was high speed connectivity at historically low cost points.  As an analogy, consider the extensive communications backbone as a series of highways.  As highways improved, it allowed cities to develop because the barrier of geographic limitation is reduced by efficient highway systems.  Communications backbones do exactly the same thing for information technology.  It allows technology to be implemented with reduced geographic limitation.  The result was the capability of deploying a containerized data center solution, either on-site or off-site for further flexibility, nearly anywhere quickly and efficiently.

Co-location Alternative

With many data center owners and operators clamoring for more space, power, and cooling, it may be hard to understand why a data center in a box solution presenting such flexibility did not gain more market share in the then data center market, desperate for more infrastructure.  The challenges to implementation were minor and were not show stoppers.  But the same drivers that made containerized solutions so attractive also gave competitive advantage to an alternate deployment strategy, co-location.

The rapid growth in the infrastructure technology industry and the associated demand in existing data center created the need for rapid growth.  Data center owners and operators struggled to design, build, and operate data centers as the growth left a deficiency in human infrastructure.  The talent to manage such a large industry undertaking of capacity growth had not yet caught up to the demand for more space, power, and cooling.  As a result, businesses could not build net new space and net new infrastructure fast enough.  Often, information technology departments were bogged down by trying to address physical infrastructure growth detracting them from their main role of information technology growth, development, and management.

In addition, while not all businesses are internet based, the need for the internet, digital information storage, and other aspects of information technology was rapidly becoming a part of every business’s operations.  However, many of these single server, local storage operations did not contain the in-house expertise to manage the information technology growth.

The demand of both large enterprise operations and smaller single server operations paved much of the way for the growth of the mega co-location facilities that we are familiar with today.  Enterprise operations may require more wholesale data center space, while the smaller needs may be addressed by retailers re-selling rack level or server level space.  This allowed the overcoming of a great challenge to rapid growth, the lack of human resources.  Information Technology groups within organizations could now focus on the critical IT growth and management, while data center experts could focus on the design, construction, and operation of the physical infrastructure (uninterruptible power supply systems, emergency generator systems, critical cooling systems).  In this new co-location model, a inherent synergy was created.  IT groups and managers could focus on the specific issues affecting their area of specialty, while the co-location facilities could focus on the specific issues affecting their area of specialty, namely real estate, critical power systems, and critical cooling systems.  This synergy is further underscored by the long history of reliable operations exhibited by organizations such as 365 Main (now owned by Digital Realty Trust), Equinix, Level 3, and Internap to name a few.

In comparison to a containerized solution, co-location facilities provided data center space that was already designed, built, and operating.  Moreover, co-location facilities were available for rapid deployment and immediate occupancy.

Many of the early containerized solutions required a high initial capital investment.  With the leases, businesses could lease as much or as little space and capacity as required.  This offered, in many cases, a higher level of flexibility than containerized solutions.  As businesses needed to run leaner in an increasingly competitive market place, co-location provided the ability to right-size your data center operations minimizing capital investment, smoothing cash flow, and maximizing efficiency in data center spending.

Leases could be executed as fast, if not faster, than the time to implement a containerized solution.  In addition, the co-location solution provided space, power, and cooling immediately in the familiar brick and mortar data center form that owners and operators were familiar with.   The flexibility to deploy non-racked form factor equipment was provided.

When assessing containerized solutions for space, power, and cooling, it is only natural to assess co-location as a solution.  The same technological advances that made containerized solutions viable (virtualization, cloud computing and low cost, high speed connectivity) opened up the co-location market as a viable alternative to a data center in a box.  If we evaluate co-location as an alternative to a data center in a box, it is not hard to see why co-location became, and in some respects remains, a more popular solution than a data center in a box.  The primary benefits of containerized solutions have been touted as flexibility, low cost, and speed to market.  Co-location presented an extremely competitive proposition to a containerized solution.

Box, Co-location, or Self Operated

The bad news is there is no one clear answer.  The good news is that there are many viable data center deployment options.  While there are proven box and co-location implementations, there are still a lot of successfully self operated data centers.

The success of these self operated data centers rely heavily on a culture of high reliability and high availability, and a focus on the future with a willingness and capability to adjust to the changing times.  These facilities often also have significantly high availability requirements.  While new generation co-location facilities come close to meeting the associated service level targets of these facilities, when you have operations that cannot introduce third party inflicted failure risk (tenants, third party contractors), self operation is often the only guarantee to zero downtime operations.  A long established culture of future planning, high reliability and availability operations gives these organizations a long future in self operated facilities for many decades to come.

As some of the larger legacy data centers come to the end of their infrastructure life cycles, box and co-location technologies offer themselves as viable alternatives as self owned and operated facilities approach end of life infrastructure replacements and costly facility overhauls.

Future of the Data Center in a Box

Today, we find the data center in a box concept fighting for a comeback.  Similar technological improvements that nearly made the data center in a box concept extinct is helping make containerized solutions a comeback.  Businesses looking to survive should keep a close watch on emerging technologies such as cloud computing platforms and wireless communication systems (in many respects possibly having a similar impact to data transportation that air travel had to our people transportation industry), that may eliminate the requirement for expensive and long lead physical communication infrastructure to these data center in a box solutions, that will continue to evolve this containerized solution market.

In their latest forms, the containers often are designed for little to minimal human interface.  Some containerized solutions are built to tolerate server equipment failure and replacement not at the inside equipment level, rather intended as a whole container replacement.  This relatively new implementation of the data center in a box concept has breathed new life into the containerized data center market.

The ready-to-move availability of the data center in a box solutions provide by far greater flexibility than can be attained in nearly any other medium.  As the products provided by the variety of vendors producing a data center in a box solution, are further developed, we can expect higher levels of reliability, availability, deployment flexibility, energy efficiency.  While the use may not have reached critical mass, it can be said that the development opportunity for these solutions remain strong.

As data centers become increasingly more architected around cloud computing platforms and wireless solutions become the norm , the low-maintenance “micro data centers” become an opportunity for businesses to exercise the opportunity to deploy data center operations without the traditional ties to data center or co-location facilities.  These containerized solutions come in a variety of configurations.  Most effective solutions are “just add power” while some may require adding power and water (i.e. condenser water or chilled water for HVAC).  Only time will tell how these ready-mix solutions for data centers will evolve; but, what is certain is that we will continue to see more development in the containerized solutions as businesses seek competitive edge in innovative solutions such as the data center in a box.

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