Thinking 'inside the box' on data centres

When we think data centres, the words “containerised” and “modular” probably don’t spring to mind – but they should.

When we think data centres, the words “containerised” and “modular” probably don’t spring to mind – but they should.

Companies are under pressure to reduce capital expenditure (Capex) and operational expenses (Opex), and only by leveraging new technologies and know-how can this be done. Containerised solutions are part of the answer to making smart investments.

While you’ll still hear headline-grabbing news such as “company X opens a hyper-scale data centre to service hundreds of companies in the cloud”, elsewhere there are numerous smaller data centres being deployed, and where it involves a mining company’s data centre, for example, the chances are it’s containerised.

As the name implies, the data centre is installed inside a container (similar to a shipping container) and that container is transported to the designated site.

Miners have always been a practical bunch. To operate in remote locations, in hostile environments, with extremes in temperatures and cyclonic winds, miners adopt a no-nonsense approach to technology. Make it robust. Deploy it fast. Make it scalable – so if we need more we expand it. Make it modular – so if it breaks we replace it. Make it movable – so if the business changes we move it.

Hence, it comes as no surprise that miners are early adopters of containerised infrastructure. Most mining facilities incorporate pre-fabricated containerised accommodation, containerised low-voltage and medium-voltage electrical infrastructure, switchrooms containing motor control centres, variable speed drives and process control systems, and data centres containing IT equipment, media servers, and telecom infrastructure.

These are all mission critical systems, which are placed within containerised solutions to keep the mine in operation. In other industries we also see companies leveraging the benefits of containerised infrastructure solutions.

Queensland is a leader in coal-seam gas (CSG) extraction and processing. All three CSG operators in Queensland use containerised electrical infrastructure, water treatment solutions, compression stations, automation SKIDS and RTUs at the wellheads.

Western Australia is a leader in on-shore, offshore and floating LNG technologies, using containerised solutions to be gas-proof and explosion resilient. You’ll also see containerised data centres in the defence industry, built sufficiently robust to withstand the shocks of aerial deployment and combat. Solar farms will use containerised, photovoltaic inverter systems.

In urban centres and cities, you’ll find containerised data centres and infrastructure due to other benefits. Why should companies in urban centres pay upfront for their own dedicated data centre, with speculative storage capacity for future requirements? Is there a way for them to buy only the data capacity for their current needs, with the option to easily scale-up in the future, and pay for it under a leasing agreement? These are all benefits made possible by a containerised data centre.

Scalability and "pay as you grow"

Modularity enables scalability, so you can “pay as you grow”. Movability with clear residual value of your assets will make your financial manager smile, by shifting Capex to Opex. Why should companies install data centre equipment into premium urban real estate, which could be used to accommodate people, when they have the option of deploying a containerised data centre inside a lower-cost warehouse or secure carpark?

Awarding a full turnkey contract to one supplier reduces the need for layers of consultants, builders and contractors, and the countless hours spent in internal meetings wondering what to do and how to do it.

Integrating new technology into the containerised data centre provides another avenue for reducing Opex. Thermal management solutions can be implemented to drive high electrical efficiency, and optimal cooling capacity. Advanced  power switching, transient voltage protection, and UPS systems can all ensure your core applications are protected and continuously in operation.

NBN’s data centres

Take the example of the National Broadband Network (NBN). The NBN is a strategic, national investment to construct an information super-highway. No one knows precisely what traffic this super-highway will carry, but everyone agrees we need this vital infrastructure to be competitive in the future (although opinions differ on how the access network should be built).

The NBN has been engineered by some of the most experienced telecom and IT professionals in Australia, and equipment has been procured in competitive, public tenders, according to strict government procedures. How have the 10 core NBN data centres in the five largest cities been built?

The NBN’s core data centres consist of the most modern technology available on the market, and all of it will be installed and integrated into modular, containerised solutions. Standing inside an NBN data centre, one cannot tell that the structure is in fact a containerised building, as opposed to a traditional bricks-and-mortar building.

The NBN’s modular solution will enable the data centre to be flexible, so it may grow as the traffic increases. Furthermore, the choices of cooling and power technologies and carefully engineered mechanical solutions provide a “white-space”, which means the infrastructure can adapt to the needs of new applications that haven’t been invented yet. Hence, the NBN is designed to be future-proof.

Modular, containerised data centres are used in many industries, in remote and urban areas, with many benefits that a traditional bricks-and-mortar building cannot match. These benefits compel us to think “inside the box”. To think about complete containerised solutions to house our infrastructure. Next time you’re with your manager, or sitting in the boardroom, and thinking how to make a wise financial decision without compromising your operations, raise your hand to start a discussion about a turnkey, modular, containerised solution.

Mark Bosnjak, Director, Industrial Business, Emerson Network Power Australia and New Zealand