How the Quest for Mobility Leads to Modular Data Center Management

by Kenneth Hess

When it comes to data center management, is a modular server room the way to go?

For those that need the data center equivalent of a fast food restaurant meal, you can order up a modular data center for those "on the go" computing needs or for when a laptop just won't do. Yes, that's sarcasm, but there's just no need for a mobile modular data center unless you are participating in a military, police or homeland security operation. Or, you're trying to sell modular data centers and you haul one around the country to show everyone just how cool they are. For security reasons alone, it's hard to comprehend the practicality of such a beast. And, there's the problem of heating and cooling.

Google isn't the only company that's brainstormed this data center in a box idea; Sun has its portable data center and IBM has one, too. No doubt there are others out there that want to put computing equipment inside a shipping container and then tell you what a great and innovative idea it is.


Physical security is a primary feature of standard data centers. Protected by multiple layers of card readers, fences, thick concrete walls and security guards, classic data centers have physical security down to an art. These portable, intermodal storage containers feature security, too, via padlocks or bales of concertina wire to keep out the bad guys. However, that's only after they're set up in their "permanent" locations. Prior to arriving at their appointed destinations, the equipment and containers may fall victim to damage, theft, vandalism and other forms of sabotage. If you think these security concerns are exaggerated, then why bother with the expense and trouble of elaborate physical security for your existing non-modular data center?

Heating and Cooling

These portable data centers are metal containers like the ones used to ship products by train or semi-truck. Bare metal walls, ceilings and floors create an unhealthy environment for computer systems. Heating and cooling are major problems with these boxes. In fact, an article describing Google's containerized data center idea reveals that, "When the weather gets warmer, Google notices is that it's harder to keep servers cool." Now there's an observation from the Department of the Blatantly Obvious.

Imagine the surprise on their faces when, after the design phase where this seemed like such a brilliant idea, they took one to Austin, Texas in the middle of July and realized that their partial differential equations and three-foot wide spreadsheet missed this one minor detail. Metal building, plus 100 degree heat equals extreme warmth.

A Better Approach?

So, what does all this data-centered-sarcasm lead us to? A possible solution. A modular data center is a good idea, but packing a bunch of computers into a lightning rod that doubles as a sauna in the summer and a deep freeze in the winter isn't.

A better idea is to create portable data centers that aren't in a box until they arrive at their destinations. Use modular concrete composite walls that "snap" together for quick setup. Insert racks of servers on wheeled modules that can lock into place so that you can build your data center to any size or specification that you need. Then, you can cover the concrete composite bunkers with soil to make them more stable and hidden from view. Concrete composite is lighter and non-conductive. It's also less susceptible to weather extremes using the added soil idea. Concrete composite data center bunkers: practical, portable, modular, configurable and more secure in transit and after setup. Sounds like a patentable idea to me.

But, even my idea of the portable data center borders on the ridiculous unless you need a military style base of technical operations in a hurry. Do we really need these data centers in a box or should we just get real with what we have? What's next, Porta-Potty data centers filled with electronic gadgetry or serverettes? Not every idea is a winner, folks. Thomas Edison held a patent for concrete furniture and, sorry Tom, but it just never caught on. But maybe my modular concrete composite bunkers will.

Google's original patent application dates to 2003, but the grant came almost four years later in 2007.

Ken Hess is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of open source topics including Linux, databases, and virtualization. He is also the coauthor of Practical Virtualization Solutions, which is scheduled for publication in October 2009. You may reach him through his web site at http://www.kenhess.com.

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This article was originally published on Friday Mar 26th 2010
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