From the Lab

The Once and Future Data Center: Containers to Components

Modular data centers have a stealthy origin, a history that includes a transformation from niche containers to more mainstream and flexible components, and a future of customized prefabrication that is central to Keystone’s value proposition.

Some of the earliest container-based systems may have been the field units of the US military’s global command and control system (GCSS) deployed in the late 1990s. In time, the private sector saw the value of a standard form-factor. Bracing for a shortage of data center capacity, Google deployed its first in-house “container hanger” facility in 2005. (Though Google waited four years to talk about it.).

The first commercially available modular system was developed by Sun Microsystems (now part of Oracle). Unveiled in 2006, the Blackbox was an energy-efficient, water-cooled data center housed in a standard shipping container. Designed for extreme use cases, the Blackbox could begin running apps within five minutes of being powered up and had a quick-shutdown button.

By 2013, modular data centers had grown into a dynamic global industry that involved more than 50 companies. Web giants, including Google, Microsoft and Amazon, drove proprietary specifications and massive scale. Vendors such as Environmental Air Systems (EAS) manufactured customized solutions to highly demanding customers, including Fidelity Investments, highlighting a shift from standard containers to configurable, prefabricated components.

Some players entered the market, and then withdrew. Data center provider IO eventually split itself into a colocation company and modular hardware and software company. French conglomerate Schneider Electric bought Spanish-Based AST Global, which had deployed units in more than 450 projects in 30 countries.

The future of the global pre-fabricated modular market looks strong. According to a forecast by 451 Research, revenue will grow from $1 billion in 2013 to nearly $4 billion in 2018. Web companies and multi-tenant data centers are two drivers, as are medium and large enterprises not yet ready to move all data operations into third-party facilities.

The versatility, density, and efficiency of pre-fabricated components are a perfect fit for the advanced data center design at Keystone NAP.