Why Modular Data Centers are Good for the Environment

October 24, 2022
The manufacturing of containerized/modular data centers

When it comes to data, what was once novel is now typical – the internet-of-things, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing, just to name a few. A similar pattern shows up in data centers, where concepts once seen as novel and emerging are now becoming more commonplace. One such example is the rapid growth in adoption of prefabricated modular data center systems (PMDCs).

A recent survey of 228 data center executives found that over half had already deployed PMDCs, while 99% shared that they have plans to use modular data center designs in the coming years. PMDCs clearly have momentum, bringing with them multiple benefits including the opportunity to enhance operational sustainability.

What is a Modular Data Center?

Modular data centers refer to a design approach where prefabricated units are assembled together 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. For power infrastructure this includes components and systems like rack systems, cables, cooling systems and uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs).

Conventional vs. Modular

Conventional data center deployments are limited by a fixed design and construction approach, leading to long development timelines and low resource density. Any expansion, equipment change, or upgrade triggers multiplying challenges and complications—even a small change can cause systemic, center-wide adjustments and risk disruption. This approach is defined by its rigidity.

In contrast, modular data centers offer flexibility and customization, boasting:

  • Location flexibility: Modular data centers can deploy in nearly any geographical location and avoid some of the more complicated aspects of traditional construction such as labor, transportation, and material constraints.
  • Scalability: Modular designs allow for elements to be added over time and as needed, aligning realistically and in real-time with capital and operational resources, and decreasing the potential for a site to have underutilized or completely unused equipment that still must be operated and maintained.
  • Faster and more cost-effective construction; better quality: Conventional data centers rely on sequential coordination of permitting, engineering, site prep, and construction tasks. Any hiccup can bring the project to a halt. Modular is a specific design and a known quality level. Things are built and tested in the factory vs. being built in the field by a different individual or electrical contractor at potentially each building or location. This allows for more consistent quality and lower cost.
  • Greater customization: By nature, modular data centers are thoroughly customizable. In the way that car buyers can select upgrades to their sound system or comfort features, data center owners can mix and match components to meet their needs and adapt to cost, space, and other considerations.

A Catalyst for Sustainability

In addition to the benefits listed above, PMDCs also provide sustainability benefits. A modular design supports sustainable construction and operation of a data center, since components are only added when needed.

Increased demands for scope 3 emissions transparency are gaining momentum, driven by pressure from investors, regulators and the general public. Data centers who stay ahead of the competition in reporting and addressing scope 3 emissions will attract customers and investors who are seeking comprehensive disclosure and commitments to sustainability. This not only applies to the sustainability of the data center companies themselves, but to the climate impact of the customers who utilize these data centers as part of their operations, such as with colocation facilities.

An example of an opportunity for data centers to reduce their climate impact is through their UPS batteries. Alternative battery chemistries such as nickel-zinc have shown advantages across a myriad of sustainability metrics, and offer users a method of minimizing their supply chain impacts and overall container material due to a battery system footprint reduction compared to other chemistries. PMDCs offer a greater opportunity to implement and enjoy such sustainability benefits.

As modular data centers emerge as a common design practice, this approach offers opportunities for the whole industry to benefit. Organizations are already taking advantage of cost savings, locational flexibility, and quicker construction periods; by also capitalizing on the opportunities to improve operational sustainability, the data center industry can ensure that PMDCs bring with them a positive impact for all.

This post originally appeared in Data Center Frontier

Images Credit: Integra Mission Critical

Tod Higinbotham, ZincFive COO
Tod Higinbotham
COO, ZincFive
Tod has a strong track record of successfully growing advanced materials companies in the energy storage, semiconductor, and solar markets. He served as Executive VP/GM for ATMI and led the rapid growth of the company, which sold more than $1 billion. Tod was an executive member of the leadership team at Advanced Silicon Materials, a world leader in high-purity silicon materials, the business that was sold to REC to form their solar materials business. He was formerly the CEO of PowerGenix, the company that pioneered the novel nickel-zinc battery technology that has become the core of ZincFive’s solution portfolio.