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The benefits of a modular approach

Danel Türk

Danel Türk

Data centre solution portfolio manager for ABB
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Modular

With demand for data centre capacity at an all-time high and rising, more operators than ever before are turning to modular power solutions to deliver new facilities.

What are modular power solutions?

These prefabricated products – which include eHouses and skids – are built off-site and factory tested before being delivered to site as an integrated solution which can then be installed and commissioned quickly and efficiently. Modular electrification solutions are flexible and scalable, and incorporate standard blocks of power which can be repeated to allow for future expansion.

While the designs are standardised to a point, every site has different requirements so variables such as utility voltage, the total size of the data centre, and the optimal design for cooling based on the local climate are all incorporated into the final prefabricated product.

Research suggests that compared to traditional stick-built data centre construction projects, using prefabricated solutions can generate a 30% improvement in speed to deployment, and the use of pre-designed solutions can improve deployment by 20%. Use both prefabricated and pre-designed solutions together and operators could be looking at a 50% total improvement against traditional data centre builds.

But it’s not just speed of deployment where modular power solutions can benefit operators.

Cost efficiencies

On the face of it, the cost of purchasing a prefabricated, integrated solution may not look like it offers cost efficiencies compared to the cost of buying all the separate components and assembling them on-site. However, there are many areas where a modular solution delivers cost savings. For example, the money saved on shipping costs when you buy one prefabricated product, rather than scores of component items.

Cost efficiencies can also be found in labour cost savings for the consultation and engineering time required to design and install a power solution, as this is all done by the manufacturer.

The labour required on-site for installation and commissioning is also greatly reduced with a prefabricated solution, which can also help to save costs. Installation is plug and play for on-site contractors as everything is already interconnected in the module. The unit only needs a connection to the main power feed going in and the connection of field cables going out. It takes less time than a traditional assembly of component equipment, with considerably less variables to go wrong.

Another cost efficiency is that modular, integrated solutions are factory tested, so the likelihood of issues on-site are minimised, helping to keep the data centre build on schedule and avoiding costly overruns.

Tackling the skills gap

It’s well documented that the industry is facing a skills gap, in terms of access to specialist contractors and trades. Modular solutions can help tackle these issues in three ways.

Firstly, buying a prefabricated solution is very resource efficient from an operational point of view as it requires one project manager dealing with one vendor, one location for factory acceptance testing and one point of contact throughout the process.

Secondly, the product can be pre-engineered to spec by the manufacturer, eliminating the need for a data centre operator to engage a consultant. Any issues that arise during the factory witness testing will be fixed before the module is shipped, reducing the need for specialist engineers to debug and troubleshoot problems on-site.

Some manufacturers offer installation and commissioning services with their prefab products, further alleviating the issue of finding available, suitably skilled subcontractors to do the job.

Resilience and reliability

One of the great things about modular solutions is that the components are from one manufacturer. The elements are naturally built to work in harmony, which isn’t always the case when mix and matching products from different vendors.

Another advantage of having the component elements supplied and put together by one manufacturer is that the engineers building and testing the skid are familiar with the equipment and how it interfaces and integrates. Modular solutions are built and tested in a controlled environment, and this makes sure the finished product is reliable and of a consistent design and quality.

Future-proofing the data centre

Modular solutions are essentially power ‘building blocks’ and they make scalability very easy for operators who are looking to expand their capacity in stages, rather than building one big facility and then finding customers to lease it – which requires a lot of investment up front.

By using modular power solutions and adding to them in phases, the data centre simply adds more modules when they are ready to expand their capacity, confident that the modules are optimised to work together. This kind of scalability allows data centres to grow sustainably with future demand while simplifying the specification and installation process.

Sustainability

There are sustainability benefits to using prefabricated or modular power solutions too. Prefabricated products are optimised to operate at the maximum efficiency, which saves energy and carbon emissions in the day-to-day running of the data centre.

In addition, the streamlined process of specifying and installing a prefabricated power product also generates less emissions as there is less heavy equipment required, less people travelling to the site and the new data centre building itself can be mounted on concrete pillars instead of a pad, which saves on concrete (concrete is very energy intensive to produce).

The future of data centres

With so many benefits to data centre operators, we believe that 2022 will certainly see a continuation of the modular construction wave. We will see new data centre capacity being deployed faster and ready to generate income in as little as nine months (half the current build time of traditional data centres), giving the sector greater agility to meet rising demand.

We’ll see the increased use of efficient prefabricated building options to help span the gap left by labour shortages while the industry invests in recruitment, training and upskilling to bring more people in. And we’ll see standardised power options becoming the go-to options for operators, providing replicable and reliable solutions which can be rolled out in the same or different countries.

Prefabricated solutions are ticking the boxes for data centres, and the simplified execution, faster deployment and mitigated risk they deliver will surely become the new normal going forward.

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