David King, CEO, Flexenclosure, looks at how industrialising the prefabrication of new data centres is the way of the future
Data is being generated and consumed in exponentially increasing amounts. Businesses have already become extremely data dependent. Governments increasingly so. In our own daily lives, most of us are rarely separated from a connected device. And the emergence of applications requiring data to be processed much closer to where it’s generated – such as the Internet of Things or autonomous vehicle technologies – are heralding a future that is undoubtedly going to be driven by data in one way or another.
This increasing reliance on data is fuelling significant change in terms of how and where that data is processed. For certain applications, bottlenecks in the cloud are simply not acceptable and the result is explosive growth in demand for decentralised computing – moving computing power to the edge of the network – and the need to build a great many new data centres there to accommodate it.
For data centre operators this clearly presents a tremendous opportunity. However, there is also no shortage of competition, and the challenge for any new data centre roll-out will be to successfully manage three critical issues – fast time to market, cost per kilowatt and capital efficiency. The good news is that there is already a tried and tested solution – taking a step-by-step, prefabricated modular approach.
Historically, prefabricated data centres tended to be deployed in developing nations more than developed ones. This was due to a number of factors, including a lack of people with the required skillsets to build technical facilities, as well as a lack of tools and materials with which to build them even if the people were available. In these cases, with no other viable options, off-site construction was and still is the obvious choice
However, the way the data centre industry has been developing – especially in the last couple of years – has made prefabrication of data centre facilities an extremely attractive proposition across the world, not only in developing nations but in highly developed ones as well.
The construction challenge – increasing speed and reducing risk
Traditional brick and mortar construction – followed by on-site installation and integration of the technical equipment – is a linear process beset with potential problems. The risks inherent in a project managed this way are no longer acceptable to most data centre operators, especially when there is a clear alternative – deploying data centre buildings that are completely prefabricated. With all technical equipment and systems pre-installed and functionally-tested in a clean-room factory environment prior to shipping to site, the advantage of this approach is a very high degree of control over vendor coordination, quality of installation and integration, cost management, on-time delivery and overall project risk reduction.
But while the benefits of offsite prefabrication versus traditional site construction are clear and apply to most data centre projects, the evolution of the data centre design and build industry can’t simply be characterised as a shift from traditional builds to prefab. In fact, the prefabricated data centre industry is itself also evolving to better accommodate the requirements of customers who need multiple new facilities.
These facilities are fully adaptable to the requirements of the data centre operator, they scale better with business growth and costs of expansion are predictable
There are many operators with not just one or two, but many data centres nationally, regionally and in some cases globally. For them, it’s not simply a question of getting new facilities built fast, but doing so in accordance with a global business model. For companies such as these, it’s imperative that all their facilities conform to standardised processes for operations, maintenance and future expansion wherever they are in the world.
This allows for more efficient interworking between facilities; easier staff transfer when necessary; consistency in their product offerings to globally hosted customers; operational cost and pricing predictability; global quality improvement programmes; controlled innovation; the list goes on. And here again, a prefabricated approach can offer significant advantages.
To meet these global demands, Flexenclosure is increasingly working on bespoke designs for specific customers that then become a standardised solution for them and which can be repeated in multiple locations. It’s effectively an industrialisation of the design, manufacturing and deployment process. Only having to jump through the design hoops for the first project means that time to operation for subsequent builds can be hugely reduced. This also improves overall cost effectiveness of a project and by repeating a standard and recognised design, overall project risk can be reduced and build quality can be raised to a level that is hard to achieve for brick and mortar facilities.
This off-site industrialization of data centre design, construction, installation and integration is not limiting in any way. On the contrary, these facilities are fully adaptable to the requirements of the data centre operator, they scale better with business growth and costs of expansion are predictable.
So with this approach of “bespoke standardisation” Flexenclosure creates tailored designs that enable clients to achieve the benefits of industrialised repetitive deployments without their having to repeat the costly and time-consuming initial process steps for each and every facility. In doing this, Flexenclosure removes the burden from clients having to maintain skilled in-house resources to manage data centre construction projects. And it enables them to scale more quickly into more geographies.
An evolved team for an evolved industry
Flexenclosure has been quietly carving out a space for itself as a world leader in the design and manufacture of prefabricated data centre facilities. Based in Sweden, the company earned its stripes pioneering the deployment of prefabricated data centres across sub-Saharan Africa, in some of the most challenging environments imaginable.
Working in countries such as Angola, Chad, Mozambique and Sierra Leone – where it was critically important to maximise the amount of work done off- rather than onsite – enabled the company to capture a remarkable set of skills and experience which has since been successfully applied to projects in developed economies as well. The result is the company’s rapid global expansion, with deployments in more than 30 countries across five continents and with staff distributed worldwide.
The data centre industry bears no resemblance to a traditional industry
The Flexenclosure team is a group of world-class experts in their fields – design, engineering, manufacturing, project management, logistics, etc. In and of itself, that’s not unique and there are many other data centre manufacturers that have great people. What makes the Flexenclosure team different is that they are also cross-discipline specialists in modular construction – something that’s difficult to do and rare to find.
They are passionate about what they do and they employ a unified team approach from the very beginning of a project to the very end, with the same people that designed and built a facility in their factories in Sweden, completing the construction and commissioning at the customer site. The company’s commitment to project consistency is critical to ensuring a successful project outcome.
Flexenclosure has taken “prefabrication” well beyond the scope of much of the rest of their industry, where many people still think that prefab equals a standalone ISO container. On the contrary, Flexenclosure typically delivers open white space facilities in modular increments anywhere from 500kW to 2.5MW. They have led the way in the deployment of Uptime Institute Tier certified modular and hybrid facilities in many countries worldwide, so they are definitely not a traditional prefabricated player.
And this is important because the data centre industry bears no resemblance to a “traditional” industry. In order for the world to get the new data centres it needs as quickly as it’s going to need them, the only way will be through an industrialised prefabricated approach. And Flexenclosure is already delivering.
This post originated at Data Centre Management magazine, from the same publisher as The Stack. Click here to find out more about the UK’s most important industry publication for the data centre space.