Understanding prefabricated data center modules

by | Jun 30, 2015 | Industry Info, White Paper Releases

Understanding prefabricated data center modules: A white paper from Miller Critical Infrastructure Solutions

Executive summary

The many different terms that are used to describe data center modules that are preassembled in a factory can make it difficult for data center managers to know exactly what they need when they’re planning their data center implementations. Terms such as prefabricated, self-contained, and modular are all used interchangeably to refer to data center systems and subsystems that are assembled in factories before being shipped to data center facilities.

This paper will provide a proper definition for what the term “prefabricated data center” really means, and a brief description of some of the concepts that define and differentiate different types of prefabricated data centers modules. This information will help data center managers gain a better understanding of how to select the modules that best meet the specific needs of their facility.


For people who work in the data center industry, the lack of a common language for discussing prebuilt data center modules is one of the key factors standing in the way of efficient and effective conversations about prefabricated data centers. Arriving at a single universal terminology would help alleviate most of the confusion surrounding prefabricated systems.

Many people also have difficulty understanding the concepts that set different types of data center modules apart from one another. Understanding the differences between types of modules would help data center managers grow more confident in their ability to select the module that best meets the needs of their data center.

This paper will attempt to address both of these issues: proposing a single universal definition for the term “prefabricated data center” and describing the three main concepts that set different types of prefabricated data center modules apart from one another.

What is a prefabricated data center? And why does the terminology matter?

In this paper, we define a “prefabricated data center” as any data center that includes one or more group of subsystems that are engineered, integrated and tested in a factory, rather than being installed on site like a traditional data center system.

These prefabricated data centers offer a number of benefits over traditional data centers, including lower total cost of ownership and significantly faster deployment cycles. However, without a proper understanding of what a prefabricated data center is and what separates the different types of prefabricated data centers from each other, data center managers will never be able to fully take advantage of the benefits offered by these solutions. With better differentiation between module types, data center managers will have a better understanding of how to select the prefabricated data center module that best meets the needs of their business.

Concepts that can be used to differentiate between different types of prefabricated data centers

There are three main concepts that can be used to differentiate between different types of prefabricated data center modules:

  • Function (what purpose the module serves within the data center)
  • Form (what size, shape, or other physical characteristic set the module apart from other modules)
  • Implementation (how the module is deployed and integrated within the data center)

It is significant that each of these three concepts describes some aspect of the practical application of the module. Rather than focusing on different terms that may be used interchangeably and lack a single widely accepted meaning, data center managers can focus on these three ideas to gain a better idea of what modules can meet the specific needs of their data center.


Prefabricated data center modules can serve one of three functions: power, cooling, or IT equipment housing. Although it is possible for a single module to serve more than one of these functions—a concept known as an all-in-one configuration—they frequently serve just one of the three functions mentioned above, as single-function data center modules can provide greater efficiency and flexibility than all-in-one modules.

A data center manager might deploy one of these prefabricated single-function data center modules in instances where they are having issues with stranded capacity in their data center. A prefabricated module that provides either power, cooling, or IT housing may be just what the data manager needs to overcome the stranded capacity issue and create a greener, more efficient facility.

In addition, a single-function data center module might be used in situations where the data center manager needs to overcome physical constraints. Single-function modules can provide greater IT capacity or more power or cooling ability in a smaller space than an all-in-one module, making them a better choice for data centers that need to make the most of their footprint. Understanding these three different functions can help data center managers select the prefabricated modules that best meet their needs around cost, efficiency and reliability.


In addition to their differences in the function they play within the data center, prefabricated data center modules can also differ in shape, size and structure. Together with other physical characteristics of the data center modules, these things make up the concept of form.

From a data center manager’s perspective, it is important to understand the different forms that prefabricated data center modules can take on because they can have a tremendous effect on how the modules are transported to the data center, how they are placed once they get to the data center, and where they are located within the data center as a whole. Since each individual data center will have different requirements for scalability and capacity, it is important that data center managers understand form, and how they can find the right combination of different forms to meet those requirements.

The form of a prefabricated data center module may determine how quickly the module can be shipped to the data center, and how much the data center manager would have to pay in order to ship the module. For instance, data center modules that take the form of an ISO-standard container could provide the most streamlined transportation experience of any prefabricated data center module, as the standard dimensions of the container would allow it move easily from ship to truck to data center.

Other data center modules that don’t have a standard footprint may be more difficult to transport, and may require special preparations on the part of the data center manager to make sure that the shipping goes through with no major issues. However, the added difficulty might be worth it in certain situations: compared with standard ISO containers, non-standard data center modules can offer a greater level of layout flexibility and IT capacity. In addition, non-standard modules can be placed either inside or outside a data center, unlike ISO containers, which can generally only be located outside.

Finally, the placement of a data center module might also depend on its form. Depending on the size and shape of a module, it would either be mounted on a concrete pad or placed directly on the floor of the data center. A data center must consider how the form of a module night affect its placement when planning to acquire new modules.


Prefabricated data center modules can be looked at like building blocks, and how those building blocks are used within the data center is another key differentiator that sets some data center modules apart from others.

Some prefabricated data center modules are intended to be used in combination with traditional data center systems, in a semi-prefabricated implementation. Others are intended to be used solely with other prefabricated modules in a fully prefabricated data center. Finally, other modules use an all-in-one configuration, where power, cooling and IT systems are all provided within a single unit, removing the need to connect the module with other modules in order to form a functioning data center system.

Since all three of the implementations mentioned above contain prefabricated modules, they can all provide a deployment that is significantly quicker than building a traditional data center from the ground up. However, there are specific instances in which each implementation would be preferable, so it’s important that data managers understand these instances when planning their implementations.

Semi-prefabricated implementations are most commonly used in instances where a data center configuration lacks capacity or space to add one specific resource, but has room to grow for another resources. These implementations frequently feature a combination of retrofitted data center systems with new prefabricated modules, and may be used to temporarily shore up capacity problems while a data center is in the process of coming up with a long-term plan to address those problems.

Fully prefabricated implementations are often used when scalability, density, and efficiency are important to the data center. For instance, a very large data center that needs to implement the same combination of power, cooling, and IT systems over and over again would most likely value a fully prefabricated approach, as it would simplify the process of repeating the implementation multiple times.

All-in-one data centers can also be considered fully prefabricated implementations, but differ from other fully prefabricated data centers because combining multiple functions into a single data center module usually results in a much lower capacity. As a result, all-in-one data centers are usually not deployed by very large data centers that are mainly concerned with capacity and scalability. These data centers are able to meet their needs much more efficiently with fully prefabricated data centers that aren’t all-in-ones. The predominate use for all-in-one data centers is in very small data centers, data centers that are needed to support temporary events, or data centers that need to move frequently.


With a better understanding of the differences between different types of prefabricated data center modules, data center managers will be able to decide which modules best meet their business needs, fully taking into consideration the drawbacks and advantages of each. This will allow them to build data centers that provide the optimum mix of deployment speed, cost, and performance.

About Miller Critical Infrastructure Solutions

Miller Critical Infrastructure Solutions has been serving customers in the data center and critical power industry since the 1980s. Today, we have over 1,000 employees, and are licensed as an electrical contractor in all 50 states. As a result, we are able to guide our customers through the entire data center implementation process, from first design to final deployment. This end-to-end approach offers our customers consistency and continuity across their entire data center footprint.

If you’ve ever felt confused or unsure about what data center modules best meet the needs of your business, MCIS can help. We’ll focus on building your critical infrastructure so you can focus on more important things—like running your business.

Visit us today at to learn more about what our data center solutions can do for you.

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