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Could movable, modular data centers be the future?

Data centers have become a hot topic in government lately. At a conference I attended last week, it was standing room-only for a talk about how to get the most efficiency out of government data centers. And while people do seem to be thinking outside the box, the physical data center itself seems most unlikely to change. Or is it?

We’ve reported on attempts to make efficient data centers that cool their servers using the ice built up on their sidewalks, underground bunkers that remain naturally cool (as well as bomb-proof) and a new data center campus that doesn't even have a roof. But the one thing they all have in common is that they are permanent structures.

But that might change. We’re seeing a new trend toward modular data centers, prefabricated units that can fit onto a flatbed truck, allowing an organization to expand or shrink its capacity as needed.

It’s not like calling for a pizza — systems can still take months to set up — but the concept is pretty reasonable. A trailer is loaded up with data center computers, all configured and likely having all the cooling and power needs that systems inside need. When a facility needs to add capacity, the new trailer is driven out to the data center and plugged into the matrix using standard components, bringing the extra capacity online. Removing extra capacity is just as easy. Just decouple it and go.

And an agency or organization saves money by avoiding the construction and engineering costs of building a physical data center.

The military has been using, and refining, this concept for some time, because it needs to rapidly deploy mobile data centers. But it’s still a new concept for most civilian agencies used to having their data centers firmly planted on concrete.

One company, that specializes in this new type of mobile, scalable data center, IO, even says that its data centers are more protected than the average data center facility, Network World reports. The units are self-contained and software-defined, so they don't rely on a large industrial infrastructure that could be vulnerable to physical or cyber-based attacks, or simply mechanical breakdowns, Bob Butler, the company’s chief security officer, said in a company video. In March, the Securities and Exchange Commission outsourced the data center services powering its EDGAR database to IO to save the agency $18 million in capital expenses.

Mobile data centers also simplify operations, which could improve efficiency. Many data center efficiency tips at that recent conference I attended involve the physical infrastructure and making sure that the IT staff and the facility staff worked together. With the IO solution, you really almost just have an IT staff.

Another possible advantage is that, if needed, an entire data center could simply be moved to a new location, perhaps to get out of the way of a hurricane. Though this is not as easy as simply jumping in a car and driving away, it's at least possible with the modular data centers, whereas a traditional facility is nearly impossible to relocate without months, if not years, of planning.

One of the factors holding back greater use of mobile data centers is simply that the technology is not very mature, and companies that offer it have greatly varying skill levels, FCW reported. But in an era of tight budgets and shifting IT requirements, it seems likely to catch on. Who would have thought that data centers, which remained largely unchanged for the past 10 or 15 years, would suddenly become a hotbed of innovation?

Posted by John Breeden II on Jun 11, 2013 at 9:39 AM


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