Designing for AI: Advancing Modular Builds to Accommodate Higher Demand 

February 6, 2024

“Modular design has taken off in the past decade – but the demands of AI and machine learning mean we need to innovate even faster for smarter, more sustainable data centers,” declared ZincFive’s Director of Product Management Aaron Schott as he kicked off an insightful panel at the recent 7×24 Exchange Conference. Aaron and data center experts from Skybox Data Centers, Integra Mission Critical, and Telios Engineering explored how cutting-edge designs for modular data centers can power sustainable growth amid surging demand.  

As data centers face escalating power needs driven by AI and numerous other emerging technologies, rack densities continue to climb and force data center operators to adjust. Luckily, modular data centers are perfectly positioned for such adjustments. 

Modular data centers are a design approach in which prefabricated units are assembled and outfitted with preselected, preconfigured equipment. This approach allows more flexibility in location and timing, and easier as-needed scaling and replacement of the center’s equipment and systems over time – perfect for the ever-shifting needs of data centers. Additionally, modular design also supports sustainable construction and operation of a data center.

Density Strains Traditional Designs

The panel began by discussing one of the biggest new challenges for modular data centers: the sheer amount of data needed for burgeoning applications such as generative AI.

You have these large, large demands. New chips drive densities beyond what’s been cooled before – or even considered possible.”

Gordon Kellerman, Skybox Data Centers

While modular designs are inherently more flexible than traditional data center designs, they must adapt even further to sustainably support spiking compute power needs. Megawatt demands from users are increasing yearly. Gordon noted how “in the past, a 1 MW deal was great; now, many customers require 150-300 MW and beyond.” 

Cooling Innovations Accommodate Capacity and Lower Footprint 

Greg MacNeill of Integra Mission Critical offered cooling techniques, such as immersion cooling, as examples of ways data centers are meeting this skyrocketing compute density demand without exceeding budgets and sacrificing sustainability goals.  

“As densities increase, I recommend planning a facility evolution to fluid cooling,” Greg shared. “A planned shift to integrate more powerful cooling strategies can help prevent rip-and-replace retrofitting down the line, helping future-proof modular data centers for rising density.” 

More powerful cooling strategies allow data centers to reduce their shell size by 15-20 percent. By packing more equipment into modular power and cooling yards, over 35% more capacity fits in less land. This smaller physical footprint is both more sustainable, and more cost-effective in terms of real estate costs. Ambient cooling solutions can also deliver major infrastructure savings. 

“The time is now to consider hybrid environments that combine air and liquid cooling,” agreed Gordon. “Immersion cooling enables massive space savings compared to traditional cooling strategies.”  

Mason McPike of Telios Engineering also supported these techniques and suggested incorporating modular electrical rings underneath facilities to enable easy future cooling expansions, since “modular power infrastructure enables component replacement without full shutdowns.”  

Inside of a modular data center

Why Modular Data Centers are Good for the Environment

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Building on Mason’s point, Greg McNeil added how “modular design lets us phase in infrastructure as the facility grows. Designing for scalability is more sustainable, since growing the data center won’t result in discarded materials from reconstruction.”  

Modular power rooms enable flexible equipment deployment, and allow for renewable energy connections anywhere.

Enhancing Resiliency and Sustainability Despite Demand 

While meeting data demand is paramount for data centers, the ability to do so without sacrificing resiliency and sustainability will set successful data centers apart. Investor pressure to disclose scope 3 emissions is growing, and as companies look to reduce their emissions, data centers are increasingly under the microscope as an opportunity for impactful reductions, considering they are one of the most energy-intensive components of their customers’ supply chains.  

Meanwhile, the cost of data center outages is rising, with a quarter of data center operators responding to an Uptime Institute survey stating that their most recent downtime incident cost them over one million dollars in both direct and indirect costs. 

Aaron Schott explained that backup battery innovations like ZincFive’s nickel-zinc battery cabinets help data centers simultaneously increase server space, meet resiliency goals, and improve sustainability.  

Sustainable Backup Power with Uncompromised Safety and Reliability

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Nickel-zinc batteries have the highest power density on the market, which frees up valuable real estate for data centers by allowing them to pack the same runtime capacity into a significantly smaller space than lead-acid or lithium-ion solutions. Their 15-20-year lifespan is double that of lead-acid batteries, which reduces replacement needs and costs. And since they’re incapable of thermal runaway, they don’t need the same bulky safety equipment that lithium-ion batteries need to protect from fire hazards.  

Nickel-zinc batteries also provide greater resiliency against power failures and shutdowns, which can cost data servers hundreds of thousands per event. Nickel-zinc battery cells allow full conductivity even when depleted, which guards against the string failure and emergency maintenance visits that lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries can require.  

Greg MacNeill added that nickel-zinc batteries’ resilience against heat can help data centers save on costs and energy as well.

We’re always exploring innovations across electrical systems, including pushing for increased operating temperatures, that help data centers save energy and cooling costs. For a long time, backup batteries limited data centers to lower temperatures to avoid lead-acid and lithium battery failure. By removing that constraint, new chemistries like nickel-zinc allow us to operate at higher temperatures and save energy.” 

Greg MacNeil, Integra Mission Critical

Collaboration Is Key 

As Gordon Kellerman of Skybox Data Centers stated, collaborating across manufacturers, operators, and clients is key going forward. Innovations like immersion cooling and nickel-zinc batteries boost efficiency, resiliency, and energy savings.  

The panelists all concluded that reaching the next level of high-density, high-efficiency modular data centers requires partnership and optimization. By collaborating across data center operators, manufacturers, integrators, and consultants to integrate expertise while optimizing components like nickel-zinc batteries for reliability and sustainability, modular innovation can achieve unprecedented new heights.