Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Modular, Containerised and Micro; the Future of the Data Center?

By Navin Andrade, General Manager - India, DCD

The future data center will need to accommodate whole new ways of storing, sharing and processing IT.  In a digitalized and cloud-reliant world, data centers will be required to provide increased services and, most likely, with constraints on the resources (such as power, skills, connectivity, money) with which to achieve this. Efficiency of operation has also to be a priority. The increased role of cloud and the greater efficiency of ‘on demand’ services need also to be factored in as companies move towards some form of hybrid IT arrangement by which cloud services or virtualised environments are used for some workloads and in-house or outsourced servers for others.
In terms of the future data center, modular, containerised and micro are often mentioned. None of these are particularly new forms of data center but each has in its way evolved to meet new challenges.   

Firstly, some definitions of what these three terms mean. The general principles of modularity is based on construction of a data center using infrastructural components that are prefabricated and which can then be assembled into an integrated whole and where components can be replaced as required.  This can be of use when building a data center in a remote location – the Verne Global data center at Keflavik in Iceland was prefabricated and shipped to site across the North Atlantic. The modular data center usually includes the componentry necessary for housing and supporting the IT with power, cooling and racks.  Increasingly, the modules may already include the IT or storage equipment and networking in a ‘preconfigured architecture’.  The IT equipment may be used to access cloud and virtualised environments. Modularity can be used for individual components within a data center that operate within discrete systems connected to the facility – UPS, for example.
Containerised data centers, known also as portable or ‘pod’ data centers, are a variant on this. They fit data center equipment (servers, storage and networking equipment) usually into a standard shipping container which is then transported to the required location.  This means that a data center may be deployed outside, possibly in remote or difficult locations, or as an overflow for a standard data center or they may be aggregated to form a data center ‘farm’.

The micro data center is a similar in principle to the containerised data center although less associated with the shipping container.  It tends to be smaller and more various in its form; again, it is self-contained but it is closer to the data equivalent of telecoms equipment where units are deployed in networks.  The micro data center is associated with the evolution of edge computing where smaller, robust and hi-spec devices are required to enable data collection, processing and transmission at the point where the data is generated (for example, within a smart home or city, within an autonomous vehicle or on a factory floor). 

All three of these have roles to play in the future development of the data center.  Modular construction will continue to increase as a proportion of all data center investment due largely to the growth of large data centers for the provision of colocation, cloud and related services.  This scale of data center requires an efficiency of operation to justify the scope of such operations.  It also requires scalability to meet changing demand.  The profile of modular build is seen to help enable this as capacity can be introduced quickly to meet demand efficiently.  Amazon, for example, reported at the end of 2016 that the new server capacity it now deploys every day would be enough to support its entire operations in 2005 when it was an online retailer (and when it was as large in capacity terms as many Fortune 500 companies today). Thus, modular solutions have facilitated a more dynamic, scalable and manageable environment where it is easier to control and in many cases customize IT and infrastructure equipment. This makes a modular approach a key component of the business and operational model for cloud data centers and both commercial and enterprise multi-tenant data centers.

Containerised data centers similarly have increased in deployment and in investment value 2016 to 2021 from an estimated USD 4.4 billion to USD 6.8 billion.  They will continue to be deployed in situations where a standard data center construction would be too slow or risky and will continue also to be used as ‘overflow’ units where capacity is stretched.  Yet containerised data centers running containerised applications such as Docker are seen to have a key role in enabling software to operate reliably when moved between computing environments, for example at different stages of development and production, and to do so using less computing power than a virtual system.  The use of ‘containers as a service’ avoids the situation whereby entire operating systems are used to run a single application, allowing more containers to be deployed when compared to an equivalent workload on a virtual machine. This is a fast-evolving, complex trend.

The forward trend in micro-data centers is possibly more difficult to project since it depends how edge processing evolves and the extent to which, for example, existing networking and processing equipment can be customized and programmed for the requirements of edge computing. As edge takes shape so investment in purpose-designed equipment will take off.    

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