Electrical Engineering: The shape of things to come

General manager of  Riello UPS, Leo Craig, identifies five key trends shaping the data centre industry.EE

When UPS technology was first introduced to the market, energy efficiency didn’t matter as much as it does now. What was critical was making sure connected loads were protected against the common power problems associated with raw mains energy – for example, voltage spikes, reductions in input voltage and blackouts. UPS systems have evolved greatly over the past decade, and it’s an evolution that has been driven by the rise of the data centre, in which the need to use power more effectively and to control lifetime costs of equipment is as important as the need for mission-critical power protection.

One: Power density

In the modern data centre, space is now a key consideration because of greater demands on infrastructure through the explosion of cloud-based services. From this, a trend for higher power density is clearly emerging which ultimately means being able to pack more capacity into a smaller space. But with this trend comes a number of challenges, as squeezing more resources into a smaller area requires improved cooling facilities and appropriate power distribution and backup infrastructure.

With floor space a premium concern, managers must think carefully about how the data centre is designed, particularly with regard to future expansion plans. At the outset of any data centre design and build project, it is prudent to fall back to the 5Ps adage of ‘perfect planning prevents poor performance.’

Two: Virtualisation

Over recent years, changes to data centre infrastructure, for example virtualisation and advances in servers that have made them smaller in size but just as power hungry (if not more so), have made it more difficult to predict data centre power demand when future proofing. Although virtualisation actually reduces the power demand of the servers and enables them to work more efficiently, it also frees up more space in the data centre, which allows for expansion of the server estate. This often results in greater demand for power than before.

Such factors should be taken into account early on in the design of the data centre power structure so that future expansion plans can be incorporated and the best UPS solution can be identified from the outset. Historically, UPS systems have been oversized to meet the needs of tomorrow, today. But this scenario is wholly unacceptable in today’s efficiency-conscious data centres. Systems should be right-sized and expanded incrementally by adding new units one at a time and simply sliding them into place.

Three: Moving to Modular

It is this new ‘modular’ technology which has enabled flexibility and ease of expansion in data centres ranging in size from micro to large scale. According to global research body Frost & Sullivan, the market for modular UPS is expected to grow to £260m (US $400m) by 2017. Whilst only representing less than 10 per cent of the overall UPS market, it demonstrates an increasing acceptance of the modular component UPS. This is driven in part by the development of small to medium sized data centres and their need to rapidly expand to meet the demand for cloud-type services. The 2012 Best Practice Guide for the EU Code on Data Centres also recommends a modular approach to data centre design.

Modularity ultimately offers the maximum in availability, scalability, reliability and serviceability whilst also offering high efficiency, low cost of ownership, high power density and, crucially, a smaller footprint.

Four: Open maintenance

UPS maintenance should be routine and carried out by the manufacturer or an approved third-party provider. Riello UPS for example, chooses not to lock down its software within its UPS as it doesn’t believe in dictating who you can choose to maintain your equipment. Being tied into manufacturers who instigate a ‘closed protocol’ system can prove a costly experience.

I believe the industry will start to adopt this type of approach to maintenance, which will allow the customer to access a wider range of engineers and open the market up to healthy competition and improved standards. To support this, Riello UPS also runs a Certified Engineer Programme to make sure engineers are fully qualified and have complete access to spare parts. Another trend will be in further developing UPS solutions which are easier to service and repair ‘in situ’ – an example being a UPS featuring ‘hot swappable’ modules.

Five: Energy storage

Using Lithium Ion (Li-ion) batteries with the UPS presents the opportunity to use the system as an energy accumulator, allowing the data centre to use stored power during times of peak demand. Li-ion batteries have greater cyclic properties (10,000 cycles compared to VRLA’s 500 cycles) and are 50 per cent smaller than VRLA batteries. They also have a faster rate of recharge, which makes them suitable for energy storage applications. This will reduce the load on the National Grid or even support the export of power back to the grid. Li-ion batteries now give data centres the ability to store sufficient power capacity to keep the data centre running for 30 to 60 minutes or more without having to run the generator. Using the generator can be expensive due to high fuel costs and may even incur extra costs in the future because of CO2 emissions.