Specification of Modular Data Center Architecture

Posted by on May 17, 2012

White Paper 160

Modularity is loosely defined as a technique that builds large systems out of smaller subsystems, where the subsystems have well defined rules for interfacing to each other. Modularity also suggests a simplified approach to installation or replacement, ideally with “plug in” of modular elements that require simplified commissioning.

Recent reports by Gartner reflect the growing realization that “The first two generations of data center designs are no longer appropriate for current and future needs. New data centers should be perceived less as a static structure and more as an agile, living organism that evolves as the server and storage infrastructure changes.” In response, Gartner suggests operators should “Include flexible, modular, virtualized design principles in new data center designs.”

Major suppliers of data center equipment and complete data center solutions are promoting the benefits of their modular solutions. Yet the definition of modularity remains vague and can be applied to a single device, such as a UPS, or it can be applied to complete data center buildings. In the case of so-called containerized data centers, the data center itself is can be viewed as a module.

Data center operators are faced with a confusing number of poorly defined terms describing modularity including terms like pods, containers, clusters, zones, rows, rooms, busses, etc.

Clearly, modularity within a data center does not refer to one specific ideal design, but rather to an approach that can yield many different types of design. Furthermore, while some data centers may be said to be “more modular” than others, there is no threshold where a data center becomes modular.

When a modular approach is chosen, the degree to which the data center is cut up into modules must also be considered. Should a specific subsystem in a data center have three modules or forty-seven modules? Modularity does have some costs, so making everything as modular as possible is not always effective.

A recent analysis by Tier 1 Research validates the advantages of modularity for data centers but suggests that the industry impact of modularity will only be maximized when modules become “industrialized” and standardized to reduce their costs and speed the supply chain.

In this paper, we will define what is meant by modularity and define terms used for describing and specifying modularity in relation to the physical infrastructure of data center including space, power and cooling. Modularity in relation to the IT architecture or IT hardware is not discussed in this paper. A graphical method for describing a modular architecture will be presented. The feasibility of standardizing and industrializing modularity will be examined. We will show how data center modularity can be effectively applied and specified, and how the approach should vary with the application.

“Specification of Modular Data Center Architecture” Full White Paper (Click Here To Download)

Executive Summary:

There is a growing consensus that conventional legacy data center design will be superseded by modular scalable data center designs. Reduced total cost of ownership, increased flexibility, reduced deployment time, and improved efficiency are all claimed benefits of modular scalable designs. Yet the term “modular”, when and where modularity is appropriate, and how to specify modularity are all poorly defined.

This paper creates a framework for modular data center architecture and describes the various ways that modularity can be implemented for data center power, cooling, and space infrastructure and explains when the different approaches are appropriate and effective.


  • Problems solved by modularity
  • Elements of modular architecture
  • Defining modular architecture for data centers
  • One or many modular architectures?
  • Documenting a modular data center architecture
  • Specifying a data center project using modular methods
  • Containers, skids, and other form factors


The benefits of modular architecture are becoming widely recognized. This paper has only briefly summarized these benefits. The move toward modular data center is inevitable because the overwhelming improvements in performance and TCO that accrue. This form of advancement can be seen in many industries such as the automotive industry and the IT equipment industry. For data centers the only questions are how quickly this transformation will occur and what form it will take.

This paper defines what is meant by modular data center architecture, so that operators, engineering firms, construction firms, and suppliers can begin to have productive conversa- tions about modular data center design using a common language. This paper has also gone further in describing how modular architecture can be formally specified. The industry will only obtain the benefits of modular data center architecture when the standard specification system described here, or one like it, becomes a commonly accepted way for vendors to describe data center offers, and for customers to use in requesting quotations.

White Paper Written By:

Neil Rasmussen

Universal Networking Services is proud to partner with Datapod™ to deliver an unique alternative to the traditional bricks and mortar data center installation. With Datapod we can provide the data center community an alternative solution that maximizes their investment and increases the reliability and availability of their mission-critical facility.  Datapod is an unique, modular data center system that incorporates innovative design and cutting edge mechanical and electrical engineering. It has extended the concept of containerized data centers to include critical site infrastructure such as modular generators, chillers, and deployment services thereby providing a complete infrastructure solution for data centers. By enabling data center users to deploy when they like, where they like and for how long they like, the Datapod system offers performance superior to that of  a “bricks and mortar” data center facility, deploys faster and at a more cost-effective price point.

Please feel free to contact Waite Ave at w.ave@apcdistributors.com or contact us to learn more.

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