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IBM goes modular in 'green' data centers

Project Big Green yields data centers that cut energy use in half and can be expanded in Lego-like building blocks.

To wring efficiencies out of data centers, IBM has gone back to a familiar playbook: standard-size building blocks.

The company on Wednesday will launch an expanded line of data centers that use a modular design to cut energy consumption in half, compared with existing data centers.

IBM's Portable Modular Data Center is a data center is a shipping container. IBM

It's part of Project Big Green, an initiative launched last year to make back-end computing less energy intensive.

Data centers around the world account for about 2 percent of all energy consumption and there is ample room for improvement, according to experts.

For example, virtualization software can consolidate multiple computing jobs onto fewer computers to cut energy use significantly.

In the past year, IBM has been able to reduce energy consumption up to 50 percent as part of 2,000 consulting engagements, said Steve Sams, vice president of global site and facilities at IBM.

During those custom data center construction jobs, the company found that standardized designs brought even more efficiencies and benefits.

IBM last year had a modular data center for relatively small installations. On Wednesday, it launched its Enterprise Modular Data Center sized to be between 5,000 and 20,000 square feet.

Typically, the modular data centers will be for new construction. IBM now suggests that companies invest in a relatively large physical space up-front and install technology as needed, Sams said.

"When you put the base infrastructure for wiring and plumbing, you in essence can defer up to 40 percent of the capital costs," he said, because the physical infrastructure is just 10 percent of the capital costs.

To expand, IBM will sell technology infrastructure by a standard building block size of 5,000 square feet.

It also has a portable data center that is packaged inside a shipping container and a "high-density zone" offering for packing a stand-alone computing rack within an existing data center.

Sun Microsystems has also created a portable data center, originally called Project Blackbox, as part of its energy-efficiency efforts. To see previous coverage, click here.

Illuminata analyst and CNET Networks blogger Gordon Haff said some claims of efficiency gains need to be put in perspective: new servers deliver much better performance per watt so simply replacing old hardware can account for much of any improvement.

"I don't buy many of these 'X percent more efficient' claims. They're just 'X percent better performance' claims in new garb," Haff said.

"All that said," he added, "there's very rapid server growth in some places: high-performance computing, analytics, Web 2.0, and so forth. You need to pay attention to deployment at scale and you need to do what you can to minimize power and cooling needs."

IBM, which is a big proponent of industry standards, said the standardized data center approach allows it to keep its costs down as well.

"We found that basic data center design and construction over last 20 years hasn't changed," Sams said. "In essence, we're rewriting the book in how design and construct data centers around the world."

Update on June 11 at 7:15 am PT: a line added to link to Sun Microsystems' portable data center.