The need for scalability in the data center has driven demand for some interesting engineering ideas over the years. For example, I remember when I got my first tour of an actual self-contained, portable data center. Sun’s Project Blackbox had just been released — a data center built into a standard 20-foot shipping container. The idea was novel at the time with benefits such as quick provisioning of extra footprint and less upfront expenses compared to building out more space. But that was just it — it was novel, and the industry wasn’t entirely sure how this data center in a box play would work. Fast forward to today and about 35 percent of IT professionals are currently either using modular products or evaluating them with an eye towards adopting the technology in the next 12 to 24 months, according to an August 2011 survey of Data Center Knowledge readers. It does gives new meaning to the idea of a modular data center, huh? In fact, the word modular has become a buzzword with multiple meanings. So many meanings, actually, that deciphering what options are available in the modular data center market can be tricky.

Tier1 Research senior analyst Jason Schafer says that the modular market is experiencing segmentation and some challenges with definitions. “The term modular has suffered from its popularity, similar to the way that cloud has,” said Schafer. “Modular means a lot of different things to a lot of different folks.” Here are a few definitions from Jason on the different buckets the term modular can belong to:

Containerized Data Center: As mentioned above, the container data center or data center in a box is an example of modularity. Essentially this is a self-contained computing facility that is manufactured in a factory and shipped to a location with power and cooling resources built-in.  It does deliver on its quick-to-market promise and can exist without being physically tied to any one location, but it isn’t always the best choice for long term needs or for deployments that require high levels of availability.

Modular Components: This type of modularity includes purpose-engineered modules. In this scenario, individual pieces of a data center are produced and made available “off-the-shelf,” as opposed to custom building infrastructure components on-site for the project.  In theory you could build an entire data center using module components — possibly saving time and money on made-to-order designs but potentially losing out on the customizable nature building your own data center offers.

Modular Providers:  Instead of just pieces of a data center being made available for purchase, with this data center as a service approach, the entire data center is available as a standardized product. With this idea, the guesswork of building your own facility is gone and data centers can be manufactured and delivered within a matter of weeks. The cost-effective nature of this solution is attractive, although you still sacrifice the flexibility of a tailor-made facility.

Phased Modular Facility: Modular can also mean a multi-stage deployment of a traditional data center. Incremental deployment of space leverages demand to support space build-outs only when needed. It does require actually making use of a physical data center facility, but the approach creates a repeatable process that delivers greater efficiencies and cuts time-to-market. You’ll see this approach with many of your colocation solutions providers today — a great option if you don’t plan on building your own data center or deploying any high-tech shipping containers to contend with scalability demands.

Hopefully this breakdown gives you a better idea of what is meant the next time you hear the word “modular,” although I am sure there are more iterations. What does modular mean to you?