IBM is trying to do for data centres what McDonald's did for hamburgers and fries - turn the making of them into an efficient manufacturing process.

There won't be an assembly line serving up IT facilities. But what IBM says it will do as part of a new initiative announced Wednesday under its Project Big Green energy efficiency program is offer a standardised approach designed to speed construction of data centres and reduce operational costs.

IBM said it will follow a set of best-practices guidelines in designing data centres for customers, and do so in such a way that companies can gradually expand facilities while still matching power and cooling needs to the IT equipment installed them.

With the expansion of Project Big Green, IBM is shifting away from custom-designing data centres, said Steven Sams, the vendor's vice president of global site and facilities services.

As the servers and other devices in data centres become more and more standardised, IT managers should be receptive conceptually to the idea of having data centres that are standardized as well, said Chris Mines, an analyst at Forrester Research. But it's still a big change for users, Mines said, adding that most data centres currently "are a hodgepodge of non-standard configurations and equipment."

Server vendors, IBM included, have been working to improve the energy efficiency of systems, for instance, by precisely calibrating fan sizes and the speeds at which they operate to specific cooling needs, and using highly efficient power supplies.

In a sense, IBM now is extending that kind of energy-efficient engineering to include the rooms in which servers are located. It claimed that its standardised approach can cut operational costs by half over the life of a data centre.

IBM launched Project Big Green last year, initially for small and mid-size businesses with data centres of up to 2,500 square feet. The company also said then that as part of the program, it planned to replace 3,900 of its own servers with 30 mainframes running Linux and server virtualisation software.

Wednesday's announcement expands Project Big Green's modular approach to include data centres ranging in size from 5,000 to 20,000 square feet.

In addition, IBM said it is now making systems available in pod-like shipping containers that are 10 feet wide and either 20 or 40 feet long. Container-based systems, which also are being offered by Sun and other vendors, are designed for use in quickly building out new data centres or expanding existing ones; they also can be used to set up temporary IT facilities.

Many data centres were built on an ad hoc basis and are ill-designed for the increasingly dense servers that vendors are now selling. They often are also overcooled for their needs and are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Data centres as a whole now account for 0.5 percent of the world's energy consumption, according to the Uptime Institute, and about half of the energy costs at a typical data centre are spent on cooling IT equipment.

Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata, said that the more standardised design and construction approach planned by IBM makes sense because of the speed at which companies are growing their computing operations. But he added that IBM isn't alone in offering such services; in particular, it faces competition from HP, which last year acquired data centre designer EYP Mission Critical Facilities.