Planning for data center growth presents many challenges, not the least of which is matching future capacity to business and customer needs. Even before the 2020 pandemic, the rise in demand presented serious challenges. When the pandemic hit and accelerated the use of technology, Internet-based businesses saw even more dramatic spikes in customers and usage. These businesses crave more capacity delivered at breakneck speeds using building methods that don’t compromise performance or safety.

Early data center facilities were created with unique, geography-driven design elements using a “stick-built” approach. Times have changed. Accelerated timelines and increased expectations have driven service providers to re-think their designs to find the best way to build capacity faster, scrutinizing all parts of the development cycle to meet customer needs today—and in the future.

Aspen Construction workers move a segment of cement pipe on the airfield construction site at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia,
– U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Monica Roybal

Today, hyperscale data center providers tend to build individual campuses as part of a larger national program that incorporates proven design elements, innovative trends and lessons learned from past projects. A programmatic approach allows providers more control over risk and ensures predictability of costs and quality. But it only solves part of the problem. That’s where a standardized approach is essential, using prefabricated modular components manufactured offsite and shipped to a project site for installation.

Time is saved with sets of modules manufactured in safe, controlled facilities, while site development occurs concurrently. Installation quality remains high, along with performance standards that are easier, faster and safer. The process is simplified and risk is lowered through the use of a predictable labor pool working in a controlled factory setting.

While the benefits of a modular data center approach cannot be overstated, those benefits are amplified even further using an integrated, holistic design approach during a project’s early design and engineering phases.

Pairing Design Theory with Construction Reality

To achieve this modern, efficient, programmatic approach to design, design teams need an intimate knowledge of the service provider’s value proposition and approach to the marketplace. With this deep understanding, designers can implement a more thoughtful design. When coupled with advanced building techniques, like modular construction, designers provide the most efficient product at the highest levels of speed, quality and safety. Two key principles are:

  • Product-led. The first is turning the traditional design approach on its head, into a product-led, bottoms-up approach focused on performance and simplification. Ensuring that the “products” (in this case, manufactured components) can be easily built and installed without onsite issues, forces the design teams to focus on different requirements. They have to think about the design as modules from the very beginning, identifying which elements to group together, how to break designs into easily manufactured sections, and the logistics of module delivery and installation.
  • Flat structure. Becoming more product-led drives the second shift: flattening the design process. Rather than a siloed “waterfall” process where each group works and then hands-off to the next group, the integrated approach requires all stakeholders to be collaborating during all phases (engineering, procurement and construction) to work together much earlier to pair design theory with construction reality. Keeping the end in mind, potential design, build and commissioning challenges are identified and resolved before the up-front design is locked in.


What impact does this shift to a product-led design approach have on modular construction? It is still early days, but there are several aspects to note:

  1. Speed to market. Schedules are significantly reduced in the design, build and commissioning phases. After creating a standardized design using repeatable, modular components, the design phase can be reduced dramatically on future projects (in the most optimistic estimates, perhaps by up to 90%) as core design components of the “platform” used for the next few years are already defined. The build and commissioning process within a controlled environment cuts in half the time it would take to build a comparable data center in the field.
  2. Increased efficiency. Ease of site installation is improved dramatically as complex components built by plant workers in a safe, efficient, controlled environment are delivered assemble-ready to a jobsite that requires the skills of only a few electricians to install. The repeatable element also lowers cost and raises quality as the manufacturing facility gets more efficient at delivering multiple copies of proven designs, rather than producing one-off components. Installation gets more efficient as skilled teams implement iterative improvement techniques from prior identical projects.
  3. Decreased variance. Using this repeatable approach, projects will be planned out to a higher Level of Detail (LOD) before going into production. Previously, data center designers may have simply given a contractor key specifications for a “box,” with the understanding that the contractor would create a solution based on the outlined parameters. In an accelerated scenario, plans would be much more detailed, providing greater certainty and less simultaneous design/development across different groups to minimize on-site issues.
  4. Managed change. Moving to a truly modular design approach will drive operators to make very conscious decisions around change control moving forward. Thinking beyond the build, it will make sense to incorporate design improvements in structured waves. This would create generations of nearly identical data centers that are easier to maintain and retrofit, thanks to legacy knowledge.
  5. Predictability. Consistent standardized products allow modular integrators to drive efficiencies in cost and schedule. By using continuous improvement practices and standardized products, customers can predict how long products take to build and better manage lifecycle and program duration costs.

Looking to the Future

Though we’ve come a long way in the last few years, we are still in the early stages of fully realizing the potential of modular data center manufacturing and construction in the industry. What we do know is that a refined design approach will further improve data center project schedules and bring capacity online faster and with less risk than ever before. And that is a good thing for all involved.

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