When a one-size-fits-all approach to data centre design no longer fits all

Ian Wilcoxson, Channel Manager (Data Centres)
EMEA Power Solutions, Kohler

Pressure to construct new data centres to keep up with the rapid increase in global data volumes is pushing data centre designers, builders and operators to adopt innovative new ways of working. One such advance is to take a modular approach to the design and construction of data centre infrastructure such as the building, its connectivity, grid power connections and other services, and then populating it in stages as demand grows. This ensures that capital investment does not get ahead of actual – rather than forecast – demand, while speeding up the implementation process. Critical equipment such as servers and networking equipment, and ancillary services such as chillers and backup generators, can be built and tested offsite and then brought to site for rapid installation and commissioning.

According to market analysts Mordor Research, the global market for containerised (modular) data centres was worth $7.52bn in 2020, and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 25.49% between 2021 and 2026, to reach $29.34bn. The analysts found that more than 40% of the organisations it surveyed were concerned about scaling their data centres, an issue that a modularised approach can easily address.

The rise of modularity in data centers

With demand for cloud services growing so rapidly, data centre architects are looking for efficient, cost-effective ways to build facilities that enable them to match the level of capital investment to current demand, while providing a low-cost way to expand in future.

Modular data centres are being used in a wide variety of contexts. They are shipped into areas that have been struck by natural disasters to provide emergency computing power. They are used to temporarily add capacity, or bring in high-performance computing facilities to handle additional loads, without interrupting core systems. Other areas where modularisation may be attractive are in banking and finance, especially as the pandemic has driven more of their services online (when did you last buy something with cash?). And there is also interest in using modular approaches to build hyperscale data centres quickly, to keep up with our shift to a more online life during the pandemic.

Different data centres, different demands

Data centres are proliferating around the globe as demand for processing capacity grows. The design of data centres is also evolving. The vast hyperscale data centres that we think of as providing the infrastructure of search companies and online retailers are being joined by smaller regional and edge facilities that bring cloud computation closer to the users. Emerging services such as 5G and machine-to-machine communications are more sensitive to latency issues than, for example, e-commerce transactions, and so localisation is also being used to minimise the time it takes for data to reach a data centre, be processed and return to its origin.

To serve the data centre market, therefore, equipment providers need to offer flexible, modular systems that can be configured to work effectively in edge, regional and hyperscale data centres, and which meet all the local requirements, standards and regulations wherever they are installed anywhere on the globe.

Power Optimised Design

A key solution is Power Optimised Design Solutions (PODS), which are low and medium voltage gensets that offer high performance, reliability, robustness and safety.

The PODS are of a modular design and can have set-mounted radiators on the generator base-frame, making handling and installation simpler. They use standard components and are available in a variety of configurations, so they can be available on short lead times for quick deployment.

PODS are designed to be delivered complete and then mounted on an external concrete slab, with all the customer’s specified options already connected and tested, making for quick and adaptable installation. PODS can also be stacked or mounted in racks, in modular fashion, so they can be installed incrementally as data centre capacity and backup power needs grow.

Of course, as data centers grow and appear in more locations, strict noise standards come into play when trying to gain approval for data centre implementations, and for being a good neighbour once they are in service. This is critical as data centres, especially at the edge of the network, move into office parks and mixed-use areas of cities where concerns about noise generation may make it more challenging to complete the planning process quickly.

PODS should be fitted with soundproofing panels made of mineral wool with an M1-class fire rating covered by glass fibre. Noise suppression is essential, from top-level of  85dB(A) measured at a distance of 1m, although more stringent options at 75dB(A) or 65dB(A) are available to suit the site requirements.

With the diversification of data center scale and location, different PODS should be put in place to meet varying specifications and requirements.

For local or edge data centres that draw up to 5MW, PODS can be packaged in a standard 20-foot container, with a skin-tight enclosure that can be customised to user requirements, or with a simple canopy. They’re compact and available on a short lead time.

Regional data centres that need up to 25MW of backup power can be served with Modular PODS, which are available in a 40-foot shipping container, for ease of transport and integration with data centres that also use racks and stacks of such containers to house server and networking equipment. The Modular PODS are also available in skin-tight enclosures, which again can be customised to meet user needs.

Finally, for the largest hyperscale data centres, which may need up to 500MW of backup power, Kohler offers what it calls Density PODS. These are packaged in a 45-foot container that has enough space inside to allow for the internal cooling necessary to accommodate very high power gensets, while also allowing operator access.

Walk-in PODS are a sensible choice for this large-scale operations as they give technical teams access to all the most important aspects of the genset, so that they can easily operate and maintain it.

At Kohler, we offer gensets that operate at a wide variety of generating power levels, with flexible configuration and rich customisation options. These modular systems help data centre architects, operators and implementers to build new facilities quickly, provide the scalability needed to match levels of capital investment to demand, and provide a low-cost way to expand in future.