Datacenter power distribution design needs relook

Conventional ways of distributing power to data centers via utility grids are no longer enough to provide the required energy to support ongoing IT trends such as smarter mobile devices and information-hungry apps.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

With the emergence of smart devices, information-hungry apps and growing consumer demand for real-time information, these factors are impacting how data centers are being designed and bringing the issue of power distribution to data centers, in particular, to the top of the executive agenda.

Peter Gross, vice president of mission critical systems at Bloom Energy, pointed out that while there have been much better equipment for data centers, the same level of innovation has been lacking in the area of power distribution architecture.

"[The data center industry] does not have the speed in keeping up with the evolution of the general IT industry," Gross said, adding that the design for power distribution has not changed much in the past 20-odd years.

Power tech not keeping pace
Elaborating, he said the power load is no longer a constant in today's IT environment, as demand-based computing increases and impacts factors such as the power needed and heat generated in data centers. The continued challenge for most datacenter operators is in finding the optimal balance between reliability, energy efficiency, and total cost of ownership (TCO), he added.

Gross' view was echoed by a spokesperson from ABB, who said demand-based computing meant service providers will have to make "massive changes in infrastructure" to support the sophisticated power demand of billions of consumers.

The spokesperson also agreed "little has changed" in the past 20 years for power distribution architecture and this "simple model" will have to be revamped to meet today's demands.

She said: "It is not just about using power off the main grid anymore. In the past, the model was simple: power was generated, transmitted into the grid and lost along the way, before being consumed by end-users.

"If you look at the datacenter demands we are seeing and anticipating, we are no long talking about 1 or 2MW of power requirements, as was the case up until a few years ago. Today, we see datacenter owners needing power in the range of 30 to 60MW for new data centers."

Using Singapore as an example, the spokesperson noted if there is a 15 to 20 percent compound annual growth rate in energy in data centers, then this means companies cannot rely on simply building bigger and more data centers using traditional design methods to meet their customers' needs. 

Not everyone would agree that there has been no change in the way power is being distributed to data centers though. Arunangshu Chattopadhyay, director for power product marketing and head of central technical support for Emerson Network Power Asia, said there was "definitely" an evolution in many aspects such as hardware, architecture and production.

"These changes have raised awareness in data centers regarding their power utilization efficiency. Customers are now more conscious about how much power they are drawing. There has to be an efficient mechanism of distribution to reduce losses, making their data centers more reliable and thereby increasing profit," Chattopadhyay said.

Differing views on best power distribution method
However, the industry watchers had differing views on how to better optimize power distribution to data centers.

The ABB spokesperson, for one, advocates for a more efficient, productive way to run data centers with data center infrastructure management (DCIM) as the "brains behind the power", as it helps manage and optimize assets and power usage.

Gross, on the other hand, touts the benefits of fuel cells that Bloom Energy produces as a "transformative" way of providing energy to data centers.

He explained the fuel cells acts as a direct energy source for these facilities, removing reliance on the utility grid. Furthermore, the latest version of its fuel cell box exceeds 60 percent electrical efficiency, which represents the highest level available commercially today, he noted.

In an earlier interview with DatacenterDynamics, Gross said: "We are creating a whole new [energy] architecture where we have two independent sources--the grid and potentially the natural gas network. By doing this, we improve the reliability and reduce significantly the carbon footprint of the data center."

Chattopadhyay suggested facility managers invert the steps to create power usage efficiency as another method of better optimizing data center energy. He noted that many tend to focus on UPS (uninterruptable power supply), voltage regulation, surge suppression and grounding, bonding and earthing, in that order.

"Emerson presents an alternative view--that is the power quality pyramid--which offers optimal results. With this strategy, we invert the traditional steps," he said.

Ultimately, though, the ABB spokesperson believes technology is only part of the solution.

She said: "Partnerships between owners, designers, vendors, consultants and providers need to be changed to one that is more collaborative so that efficiency and profitability can be addressed on a total and true cost of ownership basis, rather than on capital expenditure."

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