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Modular Data Centers Let Agencies Add Capacity Easily

State governments say modular data centers let them add IT infrastructure as their data needs grow.

When the IT staff needs to shut down the data center in the middle of the day because the cooling system is on the blink — again — it’s clearly time for a new approach.

That’s what happened numerous times to Sean McArdle, IT manager of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners in Evans, Ga. By 2007, it was clear that the data center needed an upgrade. It had one cooling unit and one UPS with a single power feed.

“About four years ago, we started running into issues with AC failures in the data center, especially during warm months,” McArdle says. “Every time that happened, we had to shut down the data center completely, because we had no redundant system.”

McArdle and his supervisor considered adding a rooftop air conditioning unit to the existing data center, but after seeing a presentation by IBM on modular data centers, “the light bulb went off,” McArdle says. The IT department quickly began scouting for a modular data center that would solve its heating, cooling and electrical capacity problems.

A modular data center consists of scalable, pre-engineered modular components that, at a minimum, include power distribution, cooling, uninterruptible power supply systems and backup generators, but that can also include monitoring and control systems, access control and physical security.

When the air conditioning unit in the data center shut down for good, McArdle’s team had to take immediate action. They chose IBM to act as a general contractor. Soon, the team installed redundant APC ACRP101 in-row cooling units — systems placed between server racks in a row to keep units with specific temperature needs within optimum ranges — along with two APC UPS systems and a self-monitoring generator. They also installed a series of compact modular equipment racks and environmental monitoring equipment to keep an eye on temperature, humidity, water levels, UPS battery capacity, generator status and fuel levels. The system was completed in January 2009.

Since the implementation, the county hasn’t experienced any power and cooling outages, McArdle says. “And while we haven’t had to expand it yet, we built expansion into it, so we can add power and cooling modules without another rip and replace,” he adds.

Datacenter 2.0

The decision-making process McArdle and his team undertook that led to a modular data center is fairly common, says Jason Schafer, a research manager at Tier1 Research in Bethesda, Md. Schafer says modular data centers are part of what Tier1 describes as “Datacenter 2.0” — a fundamental shift in the way data centers are designed, built and commissioned.

“Modular technology is much faster to get up and running, and it can save money over time,” Schafer says. “And when you adopt a modular approach to the data center, you can take advantage of advances in efficiency and technology as it happens, without replacing your entire infrastructure.”

Those were some of the goals that the Pasco County, Fla., IT department had when it decided to retrofit the county’s 25-year-old data center with modular heating, cooling, power and fire-suppression technology.

Todd Bayley, network architect for the county’s information technology department, manages the county data center, which serves about 4,000 county employees in more than 55 departments. Over time, as its electrical, cooling and fire-suppression systems aged, the data center became inefficient.

12 weeks
The time it takes to fully deploy a modular data center.

SOURCE: Cisco Systems

“We needed to lower costs and save space,” Bayley explains. “We didn’t want to cool the entire 9,000-square-foot data center. And it didn’t make sense for us to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a separate fire-suppression system.”

Instead, the county chose to implement Emerson Network Power’s SmartRow, an integrated infrastructure that includes up to six data center racks with cooling, UPS systems, power management, monitoring and control technologies, and fire-suppression in an enclosed system.

The first benefit the department noticed was the speed of implementation. The entire process, from bidding to deployment, took only four months — much less time than a traditional data center upgrade would have taken. In addition, the county spent about 60 percent less than it would have if it had retrofitted the data center in a traditional fashion and added a fire-suppression system. What’s more, the system’s security — via locks, isolation of the cabinets and monitoring — helps the IT department meet PCI compliance.

“The modular approach gave us what we needed — an efficient, integrated, secure data center where we can add capacity easily,” Bayley says.

Modular Products Come on Strong

Modular data center technology has come a long way in a short time. When the first products came on the market three years ago, offered mainly by server manufacturers, they were not what users were looking for. Not only were they based on proprietary technology, but they also didn’t solve the biggest problem data center managers were facing: how to quickly add more capacity.

What a difference a few years makes. Today’s modular data center products — IBM’s Portable Modular Data Center, HP’s EcoPOD, Cisco Systems and NetApp’s FlexPod and VCE’s Vblock — are targeted at organizations that deal with capacity, scalability and cost issues.

“Everybody talks about capacity planning, but there really is no such thing. At best, it’s ‘capacity guessing,’ ” says Jason Schafer, a research manager at Tier1 Research. “Modular data center technologies take away some of the need for exact capacity planning, because they can keep pace with where the organization is at any given time.”

Schafer expects the use of modular data center components to grow significantly over the next year.

“If organizations don’t consider modular components at the very least as part of their build strategies, they will be starting off at a disadvantage both financially and in terms of flexibility,” he adds.

Jan 05 2012

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