Container Solution or Prefabricated Systems: Clearing up the Concept and Weighing the Options

February 29, 2016 Doug Hopkins

There’s a song made famous in an old Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film whose lyrics debate the pronunciation of tomato and potato. There’s also an old saying about comparing apples to oranges. In the data center world, there could be a similar discussion around container solutions and prefabricated systems. Is it a case of semantics or are there real differences in the two? And which data center type is best for government use?

According to white paper “Types of Prefabricated Modular Data Centers,” by Wendy Torrell who is a Senior Research Analyst with Schneider Electric’s Data Center Science Center:
“Data center systems or subsystems that are pre-assembled in a factory are often described with terms like prefabricated, containerized, modular, skid-based, pod-based, mobile, portable, self-contained, all-in-one, and more. There are, however, important distinctions between the various types of factory-built building blocks on the market.”

So, when you are talking about “prefabricated” the big difference is in “form factor” — that is type of structure, size and shape. The paper calls out three general forms as: ISO container, enclosure and skid-mounted. It goes on to say, “The form of a particular solution impacts the internal usable space, transportability of it, the placement of it, and its location (inside vs. outside on the ground vs. on a rooftop).”

ISO Container
In the public sector its common to refer to any data center that is already assembled and portable as an isotope (ISO) “container.”  This goes back to the origination of the solution in our space. These containers meet the needs of agencies charged with bringing technology to the military field. They are suited for outdoor use, their widths allow them to be shipped on a plane and the generic look is benign making them rather unidentifiable in tactical situations.

The officially definition in the white paper is as follows: “ISO containers are standardized re-usable steel shipping enclosures, designed for safe, efficient, and secure storage and movement of materials from one from of transportation to another (i.e. ship to rail to truck). There are a number of ISO standards that regulate many aspects of freight containers from the classification, dimensions, to corner fitting specifications, to hooks for lifting the containers, to the markings/identification on the container. These standards make transportation and handling simpler and standardized.”

The Case for Prefab
If, however, you are not a downrange agency or if you need a ready-to-go data center outside of a fixed space, a prefabricated system is an ideal option. To be clear, it is defined as: “1. Made up of at least one pre-engineered, factory-integrated, and pre-tested assembly of subsystems that have traditionally been installed separately onsite; 2. Mounted on a skid or in an enclosure.”

Prefabricated data centers are particularly suited for government agencies for several reasons. The Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative (FDCCI) has likely left you with fewer sites, thereby limiting data center space options, but the demand for processing and speed is ever growing. By the same token, the past deadline is limiting your timeline and, of course, budgets are always a limiting factor.

Prefab solutions can mitigate all of these challenges and there are several options available.

  • Semi-prefabricated – A data center comprised of a combination of prefabricated functional blocks and traditional “stick built” systems
  • Fully prefabricated – A data center comprised completely of prefabricated IT, power, and cooling modules
  • Micro – A data center that is self-contained in a single enclosure, with IT, power, and cooling systems

Semi-prefabricated could be useful if your consolidation efforts have actually resulted in open space at a particular site, but not enough capacity — whether in terms of cooling or density. With semi-prefabricated, you can add on to existing infrastructure and bridge the gap.

Fully prefabricated systems have a huge advantage over traditional ISO type systems because they are not constrained by the 8’ width ISO standard and can be bayed together to form a larger room.  These ISO standards leave very little clearance space with an internal dimension of 7.5’. When you subtract out a IT cabinet depth of 3.5’, this leaves you only 4’ for clearance to be split front and back.

A prefabricated solution can provide upwards of 2.5 additional feet of clearance and provide the additional space necessary to comfortably work inside the solution.   You can take it a step further and bay multiple units together without inside walls to provide even better flexibility to the customer.

Micro data centers are growing in the private sector, but are not being utilized much in the public arena yet. As use cases become more substantial and documented, the public sector will find applications as well.

But for the majority of agencies, a fully prefabricated data center will meet their needs. It currently takes about 12 weeks to fabricate a modular solution. IT equipment could be populated within about one month, so, on average, you are only about 16 weeks from having a fully tested and integrated data center up and running.

You’ll be able to focus on the actual mission of your agency instead of a lengthy procurement and deployment process. For those who want a known and consistent cost, prefabricated data centers can be obtained as a service as well.

Now that you know why a prefabricated data center is an optimal solution for the government space, in my next post, I’ll review the implementation process, talk about total cost of ownership (TCO) and address questions of design.

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