Data Center

Modular data center vs. traditional: When to choose each | TechTarget

Advances in AI, IoT and high-performance computing drive the need for additional data center help. With these advances, customers and facility owners need a way to bring more capacity and power density to their data sources.

There are two types of data centers: modular data centers (MDCs) and traditional data centers (TDCs). MDCs are economical, fast and energy-efficient ways to deploy a data center wherever it’s needed. TDCs are large, immobile buildings that can withstand excessive use and power. For some customers, an MDC is the best choice as it is mobile. For companies that need a lot of power to run multiple servers, a TDC is the way to go. Here’s an overview of how to decide which is best for you.

What is a modular data center?

MDCs are built using a modular approach to hardware and software. Individual modules are designed and built separately and then assembled to form the complete data center. MDCs are usually contained in a structure like a shipping container. They can also be in smaller, prefab boxes inside a building. The modular approach enables flexibility and scalability since users can add or remove pieces to meet customer requirements. They can also be transported quickly to the locations where they’re needed most.

What is a traditional data center?

A TDC is a standalone facility that houses computing equipment and cooling systems. TDCs are either dedicated facilities on-site for large enterprises or colocated facilities that share space, power grids and cooling systems with other customers. They require large amounts of internal and external space. TDCs are resilient and provide high availability and security to all customers.

Design differences between modular data centers and traditional data centers

There are two types of MDCs. The first fits data center components and technical elements, such as servers, storage, power and cooling infrastructure, into a standard shipping container. The second is a smaller option where data center hardware and software are built into cabinets or similar structures for deployment.

Customers can individually use MDCs or combine them to increase capacity. The design of an MDC depends on the size of the container it’s put into. The larger the container, the more elements that can fit inside.

A TDC design is a larger scale of an MDC. TDCs include more moving parts, standards, best practices and ideas than an MDC. They’re typically designed and built using best practices for both the physical building and the technical elements inside it. Consequently, they may be more complicated to design and execute.

Facility owners might use one or all of the data center design and infrastructure standards, although it is not required. These include the Uptime Institute Tier Standard or ASHRAE standards when conceptualizing and building it.

Other differences between MDCs and TDCs

Aside from their internal design, there are other differences between TDCs and MDCs.



MDCs are more cost-effective because customers generally have fewer sites and assets to manage, secure and maintain. Components are prefabricated and standardized with single vendors, reducing costs from start to finish.


TDCs are expensive to design, build and maintain because of their size, amount of equipment deployed, cooling and power requirements, and staff needed to keep it functioning.

Energy efficiency


MDCs are more energy-efficient because of their smaller footprint. They can also take advantage of newer technologies as it’s more cost-effective to try them as soon as they’re available.


TDCs have higher power usage efficiency rates due to their size, capacity and customer base. This can be managed with better monitoring and infrastructure options, which come at a higher cost.



MDCs are easily scalable. Modules can be added or removed as needed.


TDCs are limited in scalability by their physical space. They can scale through virtualization but only to a certain extent. It isn’t easy to adjust capacity beyond the physical walls of the building.

Reliability and redundancy


MDCs are designed, constructed and deployed by a single vendor. While MDCs are more predictable because they do not use strong equipment and components, they may not be able to handle a sudden increase in use.


TDCs are generally deployed with various parts, pieces and vendors involved. Each component must work appropriately. In the event of a failure, it’s not always obvious who’s responsible for triage, troubleshooting and fixes. Coordination must be well documented to ensure everyone knows what to do and when.



Air cooling can be integrated into smaller MDC cabinets and larger containers quickly and effectively. Cooling is more efficient because of the standard build of the MDC, and it can handle high-performance workloads easily.


A TDC requires significant cooling resources based on size and workload. It also requires special designs to incorporate efficient cooling options, like raised floors, cold/hot aisles and hardware-based cooling.

Ease of upgrades


MDCs can be more expensive to upgrade if the entire container is replaced with a larger capacity one. Overall, costs are lower than TDCs because timelines and equipment costs are compressed and standardized.


Upgrades are done individually and as needed on hardware and other components. TDCs can be expensive if multiple vendors and people are working on various components at once. They can be cost-effective if only individual components are being replaced or upgraded.

Modular or traditional data center?

While MDCs are more flexible, scalable and cost-effective, TDCs offer higher reliability, redundancy and security to customers.

As with most technology decisions, your choice of data center depends on various factors. These factors include budget, requirements, location and industry to start.

Julia Borgini is a freelance technical copywriter and content marketing strategist who helps B2B technology companies publish valuable content.