Prefabricated modular data centers have been doing the rounds for more than a decade, offering an impressive list of benefits to a wide range of sectors – from automotive and defense to healthcare and education. It’s arguable that prefab technology continues to be disruptive, but it’s not the most new or innovative technology to impact the sector.

One reason it’s beginning to gain traction is that hyperscalers like Microsoft have begun to move into the prefab space. In autumn 2020 Microsoft launched Azure Space, its home grown ‘portable data center in a box’ designed for ‘challenging environments’. In many respects Microsoft has made significant impacts on the market via Azure and its testing of hydrogen for backup, but one might speculate that outside of its target market, Azure Space is not as ground-breaking as its other innovations.

Microsoft, for example, has form in the innovation department, having sunk a prototype data center to the bottom of the sea near the Orkney Islands in 2018, as part of its Project Natick. However, no amount of marketing, branding or R&D budget can mask that prefab is a tried-and-tested technology that has been in use in multiple sectors for more than a decade.

Interestingly the buzz-surrounding prefab could be akin to the first versions of DCIM that failed to live up to the hype. Yet the truth is that prefab is neither new nor jazzy. And while it’s benefits often supersede, or challenge the status quo of what’s achievable with design and build, modular data center technology is already everywhere - but in the case of prefab it’s being used discreetly.

Built, tested and ready for deployment

In fact, prefab is now so popular that many risk-averse organizations such as life science, government and defense departments, educational establishments and the healthcare sector are using it extensively.

Take the military for example. As defense becomes increasingly hi-tech and data reliant, armed forces across the globe need ever-more reliability, data storage and compute power as close to the front line as possible. With its unparalleled flexibility, speed of deployment and high levels of performance, prefab is the perfect solution to this challenge to drop into a truly demanding environment.

A state-of-the-art multi-ISO data center, for example, can be manufactured within months, fitted out with cooling, back-up power, fire suppression, power distribution, racks, security systems and data center infrastructure management (DCIM) software. All of this can be rigorously tested before the system leaves the factory, before being placed on standby for airborne deployment anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice.

Prefabricated systems can also be ruggedized, which is perfect for harsh military environments and steps can be taken to ensure they are shock-proof, and totally secure. On the frontline there is also a need for prefabs to be SCIF compliant, which means they prevent electronic surveillance and suppress any leakage of sensitive security and military information. Some manufacturers even boast their units can withstand small-arms fire!

To be frank, the military has been using prefab in this way for many years. It’s neither new nor trendy; it’s just that defense organizations don’t shout about their capabilities… for obvious reasons. But thanks to prefab and its off-site build there’s no need to rely on unreliable infrastructure in potentially hostile environments.

Satisfying the healthcare sweet spot

Healthcare is another long-time sweet spot for prefab. This has come into sharper focus recently, during the pandemic as pharma and life sciences companies race to invent, manufacture and distribute an effective vaccine for Covid-19. Vaccine developers can’t sit around, waiting several years for a conventional data center to be built. So for them prefab is also a fully scalable no-brainer.

Schneider Electric, for example, compared prefabricated systems to conventional ‘stick-build’ facilities, and found traditional builds generally take 12 to 24 months to construct, compared to less than eight for prefab. Perfect if you need to scale-up fast.

The big five hyperscalers have also been secret prefab fans for years. Sure, these tech giants have their own data warehouses, but they also regularly increase their footprint using colocation facilities – many of which are using prefabricated components, from power to cooling and IT modules. Such is the security around these sites that neither the hyperscaler tenant nor the colocation data center owner ever publicizes their existence.

Growing demand for real-time interactions

The growing demand for Edge computing and the arrival of 5G are two factors likely to boost the popularity of prefab even further in the near future, but in smaller forms. Gartner predicts that 75 percent of enterprise data will be processed at the Edge within the next four years, a trend being further driven by data-hungry technologies such as IoT, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and smart cities.

The desire for real-time interactions will drive businesses to bring computing power closer to end-users… and what better way to achieve this quickly and efficiently than with prefabricated, standardized and highly-efficient data centers?

With the increasing maturity of the prefab sector, data-intensive technology, the growth of infrastructure at the Edge and increasing interest from hyperscalers, prefab is fast gaining traction again. But for those manufacturing the systems, it’s time to ditch the hype and prepare for a new battleground of innovation to stay one step ahead of the pack.