Prefabrication provides ready-made benefits

415 Research says prefabrication is about to transform the data centre world. Matthew Baynes, enterprise sales director at Schneider Electric agrees wholeheartedly .

After a prolonged infancy, prefabricated modular (PFM) data centres are now rapidly evolving and gaining mainstream market support, says 451 Research, a global analyst with established credentials in the sector. Factors which will serve to facilitate this transformation include the number of credible products and suppliers, the fact that solutions are becoming available for most applications, and some high profile case studies.

 "The ICT market is undergoing extensive and disruptive changes at the moment," said Baynes. "We’ve long seen the near exponential growth of created, stored and transmitted data. However, trends such as cloud computing, social networks and social business, Big Data and the Internet of Things have added an incredible amount of momentum. The velocity and volume of change is driving a need to find new ways to design and deliver data centres in a manner which responds to the needs of a rapidly developing market landscape. "

At DatacenterDynamics London 2013, Schneider Electric introduced 15 prefabricated data centre modules with 12 new prefabricated data centre reference designs. The reference designs detail complete data centres scalable in 250kW to 2MW increments to meet Uptime Tier II and Tier III standards. The modules range in capacities from 90kW to 500kW and are customisable to meet end users’ specific requirements.

This announcement was followed in January 2014 with the news that the company had acquired AST Modular. Based in Barcelona, AST has a strong record for innovation and has deployed containers and modular data centres in more than 450 projects in 30 countries around the globe. The company had been the latest in a series of modular specialists to move beyond standard ISO sizes to develop more versatile designs using several modules to assemble a data hall.

A matter of definition

“Modularity and standardisation are key concepts for the commoditisation of data centres,” said Matthew Baynes. “Accordingly, we have looked to apply those concepts across the board to our hardware and software offerings for data centres. However, we have also built-in customisation capability specifically to enable the customer to avoid making compromises in data centre design.”

One thing which has held back the adoption of prefabricated modular data centre solutions is certain degree of confusion caused by terminology. "One issue is that the terms 'container' and 'modular' are being used interchangeably," Matthew Baynes says. "We'd say that containers are certainly one form of modular solution - all containers are modular, but not all modular solutions are ISO containers."

In fact, Schneider Electric provides some solutions in traditional ISO container dimensions. However, the company believes what constitutes modular is less about size and more about concept. "The modular concept includes skid-based, pod-based, mobile, portable and all-in-one solutions. The important distinction is prefabrication and pre-assembly. Modules should arrive ready for integration with a minimum requirement for on-site engineering services," Baynes continues.

Factors limiting modular adoption

"In the past, the data centre designer has been limited by choice and forced to make certain compromises. Even so, there is an increasing trend towards modular pieces of equipment being utilised in hybrid data centre designs - approaches which bring together traditional approaches to white space with modular solutions for external plant and electrical infrastructure. “

" Schneider Electric has given choice back to the data centre designer – it’s for the solution provider to answer the designer's requirements and solve his problems - not to make it incumbent upon the designer to change his or her way of working. By providing an extensive range of solutions, we're also removing questions about interoperability. These solutions are designed with open interfaces so that they can be easily integrated, and they come with software pre-installed so they can be easily brought into the management system from day one."

Matthew Baynes says that recent announcements have been received enthusiastically. "What we're hearing from our customers is that they are very excited about our Prefabricated offering - for the first time they can see how their organisation can realise the benefits of prefabrication without having to make significant compromises in the way that they have in the past. We can show them how we can help them to achieve their goals, and we've put in place a structured offering which can accommodate their design preferences and overcome some of the constraints which they might be facing".

Prefabricated data centre modules also answer the questions of organisations which have globalised operations. "What we're able to provide is a step and repeat approach to data centre design and builds, with enough breadth in the offering to adapt to different geographic and climatic requirements anywhere in the world. The benefits of predictable performance together with a standardised approach to operations and maintenance, provides better reliability and a basis for higher capacity utilisation and energy efficiency," says Baynes.

Does modular mean lower cost?

"The subject of cost savings is an interesting one," says Matthew Baynes. "The reality is that if you take into account the entire construction cost of a data centre, and were able to make a like-for-like comparison between modular and traditional builds, in almost all cases the Prefabricated, Pre-assembled approach would show some cost savings. However, the reality is that there are no tools which allow customers to make such a comparison currently – an effective tool would have to account for the total installed cost, including all of the installation services and site work during the build. These are costs which are complex for customers to account for - which is why Schneider Electric is working to develop an online Trade-Off Tool to help make this comparison possible."

"Organisations like BSRIA have done extensive studies of modular building constructions, they have found the approach to be significantly more efficient than traditional builds. However, in our conversations with customers we focus very much on ease in the design phase, the fact that the infrastructure is an agile solution which can be adapted throughout the lifetime of the facility and the advantages of prefabrication and pre-assembly during the construction phase. In addition, with standardised building blocks, it becomes easier to train people to operate and maintain the data centre. If you look over the whole lifecycle, you have a much simpler process which is in turn less expensive and more efficient," says  Baynes.

Integrated management with prefabricated modular data centres

The new prefabricated modules deliver IT, power, and/or cooling integrated with best-in-class data centre infrastructure management software such as StruxureWare  for Data Centers DCIM, and Power Management Expert (PME).

PME provides a focused and fully optimised power management system which actively monitors and analyses the electrical power distribution infrastructure of a data centre – including MV, LV and IT floor power. The software provides deep insight into the operation of electrical infrastructure which can help identify ways to increase reliability, efficiency and security of supply. It also enables businesses to identify and respond to power system events, measure utility and facility power quality and monitors the energy per rack and customer, automatically exporting billing determinants to customer billing systems.

PME helps address the electrical system’s reliability and efficiency targets and provides deep electrical system insight, enabling facilities to simultaneously cut down energy-related operating costs and boost the return on their electrical distribution assets. Whilst maximising efficiency by helping to uncover energy waste, unused system capacity and showing new ways to extend equipment performance and life span, the software can also optimise the loading of power equipment without compromising reliability and is critical for minimising CAPEX.