Why choose to build a modular datacentre?

Faced with an ever-increasing demand for server space, data centre operators and investors are confronted with deciding the best way forward to satisfy this demand. Principally three possibilities exist: increase current density, extend the existing facility or build a new data centre. The article below will deal with the latter option.

Datacenter Modulaire à l'Est de Paris
Aerial view of proposed modular data centre east of Paris.

New data centre: modular or global approach.

Many of the large technology companies have the requirements and the means to build large fully fitted-out data centres which could be termed as a global approach. These have many advantages in terms of scale and capacity and can be located where the climatic conditions are optimum and/or where the energy source is sustainable. However for a more commercial type of data centre a modular approach offers a better solution: quicker to “market”, reduced initial costs and flexibility.

What is a modular data centre?

As the word describes a modular data centre consists of modules of server space with the necessary technical equipment to ensure optimum operating conditions: stable and continuous electrical supply and adequate cooling. The modules can take various forms, from the containerised version where server space and technical equipment are built into steel containers, like shipping containers; through to a modular system where the server space is created within an existing or new building with the technical equipment nearby, inside or outside the building. The containerised solution is ideal where local conditions do not allow for other alternatives, i.e. difficult geographical conditions, lack of local skills etc. The containers are built off site, in factory conditions and are transported to site after testing. However this solution is limited to small servers’ capacity.

A modular system solution for a server room with around 250m² capacity and with the electrical generators and cooling equipment located nearby, is a very good solution for either an extension to an existing data centre or as a new start-up. The modular approach can also be applied at a larger scale; where there is a specific client demand for large capacity server space, for example a 1000m² data suite. This solution is ideal for established operators who want an incremental development to their data centres. In this solution, within an existing building or a new build, the modules of server space and associated technical equipment are installed as and when there is a confirmed order.

Modular approach: improved efficiency and return on investment

Datacenter modulaire en container externe
Concept of datacentre in freight containers

A modular data centre allows a balance between return on investment and securing financial and business risks with time. The key solution to improving the efficiency and the financial return on a data centre project is to maximise the usable space. A thorough understanding of local planning regulations (in France, the Plan Local d’Urbanisme) is required to maximise the internal space and make use of the surrounding area for external containerised generators. With a modular approach, the modules can be moved around and the adaptability of different solutions can be studied. For example, placing modular technical equipment on the outside of the building can reduce development costs as it is easier to add to at a later date. This approach also means more flexibility to change in the future. However, to reinforce their efficiency, these solutions have to be analysed and tested during the feasibility phase in order to simplify and optimise their implementation. As with any data centre project, the initial development strategy is the key to its success. A modular approach allows for the optimum flexibility in determining that strategy.

Flexibility and step by step construction

Datacenters Modulaires
Phasing of a modular datacentre

The key word with a modular solution for a data centre is flexibility; in terms of finance, space requirements and technical evolutions. As previously mentioned, a modular approach allows for relatively low initial costs with investment liked to confirmed orders; the server space can also be created and adapted to suit individual client requirements. In a sector where technological innovation is amongst the fastest in the world, a modular approach also allows for adaptability to the latest available technology. It offers clients the possibility to tailor the technical solution to their own particular operating methods, to the extent that each module could propose a different technical solution to the adjacent one.

Modular datacentres meet political, economic and social challenges

Being able to develop smaller single data centre modules is an important advantage to local authorities. The possibility of building a module for minimum size requiring minimal investment makes it easier for the local authority to integrate data centres into the local and urban fabric. This can respond effectively to the economic and social issues that arise in relation to access to NICT (New Information and Communication Technologies) for local communities.

The European Union is currently discussing the question of developing a European network in order to reduce our technological dependence vis-à-vis the United States. It is therefore easy to imagine that the use of modular data centre construction in Europe will undoubtedly be the solution for rapid development of efficient and upgradeable data centres at a local scale.

Datacenters Modulaires
Perspective view of modular datacentre project outside Paris

Reid Brewin Architects is one of the leading architectural practices in France recognised for its experience in the design and construction of data centres, including modular data centres. The firm has worked on many projects throughout Europe and the Middle East, notably in France for Global Switch, Equinix, Digital Realty, Telecity, Sodearif and Bouygues Energy Services.