Cool. Dry. Secure. Since the first data centers came into existence in the early 1950s, and the first major security breach of a modern Canadian data center at Sir George Williams University in 1969, the prevailing mantra surrounding data centers has been those three words: cool, dry, secure.

Much has changed since the old IBM and RCA mainframes of the 50’s and 60’s. Back then computers, and their tape and disk drives, filled entire rooms and attendants needed to be in the room to schedule jobs, load tapes, and switch disk packs.

Today’s virtualized servers and storage can perform at a rate never imagined even 10 years ago, and occupy a small fraction of the space they once did. However, the physical design and operation of the data center is still, for the most part, stuck in the 70s.

While processing and storage solutions continue to shrink in size and grow in capacity, prevailing design continues to dedicate an expansive area of corporate office space to a data center. This area is then secured with electronic locks and the entire volume is cooled with roof-mounted chillers pumping air through a raised floor, all the while hoping the space is never outgrown, or originally overestimated.

While the ordinary consumer would never buy a liter of milk, bring it home, leave it on the kitchen counter, and cool the entire kitchen, this is what we essentially do with our data centers. Instead of cooling the IT equipment, we cool the entire room. The electrical inefficiency has to be considered, especially when it is understood that for every watt of heat produced in a data center, two watts of cooling are typically required to offset it. The cost of cooling, for the most part, has been one of the “hidden” costs of IT: the electrical expense to cool the data center traditionally has been paid out of a “facilities” budget.

As with all areas of business, solutions have presented themselves to address the ever-changing environment of the corporate data center. The first solution centers around what appears to be a fortified, air-conditioned, shipping container. These stand-alone units, easily moved on a flatbed truck, can be positioned outside any corporate office, and offer a cool, dry, and secure environment for IT equipment. Often deployed as an interim data center after a corporate disaster or as emergency expansion after a corporate merger, they are usually not a permanent solution, but can become one if the situation warrants. And while they are more energy efficient than a traditional data center in that the airspace needing cooling is greatly reduced, their initial cost and outdoor footprint also need to be considered.

A second more compact solution is also making inroads into the thought process of protecting and cooling IT equipment. These resemble the size and shape of a modern refrigerator and offer the same flexibility of placement. Being smaller in size, their on-board air-conditioners cool only the IT gear inside and not the surrounding room, lowering the cost of cooling by as much as 70 percent over a traditional data center. No expensive raised floors or roof-top chillers are required.

As virtualized servers become more powerful and every disk can store terabytes, an entire small-to-medium organization can now realize their entire IT data center environment of servers, storage, and core network contained in a small number of secure, waterproof, refrigerator-sized, micro-data-centers. These units can be placed anywhere there is electrical power and network connectivity. This means an unused back office, storage area, underground parking lot, or even the old data center after de-commissioning the existing A/C units. Some military applications even have this solution running outside in the elements. And yes, there is a bullet-proof version.

This solution also has the advantage of growing unit-by-unit as needs in the IT environment grow, or shrink. Without being tied to a designated space by cooling or security systems, these micro-data-centers can be relocated within hours by means of a simple pallet-jack and an elevator.

The philosophy of cool, dry, and secure is still alive and well for good reasons. At least now there are new ways to meet these requirements, and several which are far more energy, and space-efficient, than the traditional data center.