TechWatch: The power and the passion

TechWatch: The power and the passion

Numerous technological breakthroughs have helped the power management space to raise its profile

The power management space is not particularly high profile in the IT industry, but it is one that is constantly pushing the boundaries of electrical engineering. We look at the current innovations in the sector and where it is headed.

The power management industry has long been content to stay in the background, ensuring mission critical IT infrastructure is up and running. Uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) are synonymous with the space, and they are there to ensure business continuity in the case of power failure. The sector’s low profile may give the impression that not much is happening in power management, though developments are constantly underway.

Numerous technological breakthroughs have helped the power management space to raise its profile somewhat over the years. DPSA CEO, Jacques Tesson, points to the increased availability of energy efficient power management tools, including UPS models with eco-mode, as one of the key developments. “This is now a standard rather than specialised offering from the major players,” he said.

Visibility is a word Schneider Electric Pacific VP, Paul Tyrer, uses to describe the key achievement in the power management industry. By that he is referring to the implementation of real time power metering at the rack power distribution unit (PDU) and uninterruptible power source [UPS] level. “It has had a profound impact on correctly architecting in-rack power redundancy,” he said.

Tyrer also highlights the ability for these devices to report and alert via simple network management protocol (SNMP), and email into upstream enterprise management and datacentre infrastructure management (DCIM) software. “The visibility of power flow into the rack environment has resulted in lower downtime,” he said. Other benefits include higher efficiency through right-sizing of ancillary equipment.

New technologies typically aim to expand on standard UPS features to lower capital expenditures (capex) and operational expenditure (opex) without compromising availability and scalability levels. Emerson Network Power A/NZ technical services senior manager, Mark Deguara, claims transformer-free UPS designs are a significant development. “They provide better efficiency in a smaller footprint with improved flexibility and high levels of availability,” he said.

Smaller, modular building blocks are used for large transformer-free UPS to deliver high power in a lighter, compact package. Deguara said this modular design has advantages when the timing of future load requirements is uncertain. “It allows capacity to be more easily added as needed, either physically or via control settings,” he said.

Capacity-on-demand is another trend Deguara has seen grow in popularity in the UPS space. “It is essentially derived from modularity within the UPS module itself,” he said. “This provides capacity-on-demand that enables datacentre managers to meet current capacity requirements, while ensuring they can easily and cost-effectively adapt to future demands.”

Continued experiments

Much has already been achieved by engineers in the power management space, though efforts into research and development are ongoing. DPSA’s Tesson is keeping an eye on alternative battery technologies for UPS, which is something he has seen gain momentum in Europe though not yet locally. “There are lots of different options on the market there, such as lithium batteries, NiCad batteries and various fuel cell technologies,” he said.

Eaton Electrical A/NZ power quality marketing manager, Stefan Buerki, is seeing new developments in the energy storage market trending towards storing energy in UPS batteries. This is in order to use it during peak demand periods when datacentres “pay a premium on their energy bill.” Buerki adds the technology for peak load sharing with batteries is already available within the UPS for management.

The challenge, however, is the cost of using batteries for storage, particularly in it outweighing the benefits of what dynamic load sharing can offer. Even so, Buerki expects new ways of reducing the energy bill to eventuate. “As batteries get cheaper and energy cost rises, datacentres will start to utilise this technology,” he said.

There is a market push for energy efficiency, and Schneider Electric’s Tyrer said this is what is driving IT departments to procure new equipment. While vendors such as Schneider Electric have made their UPS systems highly efficient, Tyrer expects further implementations of low-power “green-mode” operations. Through advanced engineering, UPS systems can be pushed to efficiency levels beyond 97 per cent.

A greater level of integration between the UPS/power management layer and the systems layer is also forecasted by Tyrer. In Schneider Electric case, its APC range of products is being integrated with VMware and Microsoft systems. “In response to current trends, PowerChute Network Shutdown software to support safe shutdown of VMware High Availability clusters was introduced,” he said.

UPS may be commonly viewed as a way to keep equipment powered during outages or power fluctuations, though Emerson’s Deguara said solutions have evolved “well beyond” this point. “Modern UPS systems are critical to helping datacentre managers achieve their efficiency targets, reducing carbon emissions and lowering heat output while maintaining or improving availability levels,” he said.

“Newer UPS designs, like transformer-free systems, are a response to the rising cost of datacentre space and the modular nature of the modern datacentre.”

Room for improvement

A lot of work has already gone into making today’s power management solutions efficient and robust, though one naturally wonders if more performance can still be wrung out. DPSA’s Tesson personally sees a future in fuel cell technology. This is where chemical energy from hydrogen or some form of biofuel is converted into electricity through electrochemical reactions.

Besides the two to three times efficiency in the energy generated, the other benefit is pollutants are not produced. This is due to the electricity generation process being electrochemical rather than combustion. “With these new battery technologies, it’s possible to get a more efficient piece of equipment and longer UPS run-time in a smaller footprint, two significant performance improvements,” Tesson said.

Schneider Electric’s Tyrer admits there is potential to wring out more energy, though adds the best equipment in the world is only as good as its implementation. “If we have a 5kVA UPS and associated power distribution infrastructure with only a 1kVA load, that system is going to be far less efficient than having exactly the same UPS and power distribution infrastructure with a 4.5kVA load,” he said. One way to currently optimise performance is via DCIM software, which Tyrer said can be used to adjust to load types.

There is an ongoing need to get more power out of a rack or datacentre, and Eaton’s Buerki said there is a drive to reduce operating expense (opex) while “space is money”. “This again puts challenges back to suppliers around providing for increased power density and new ways of cooling,” he said. “The electronics of a UPS today can handle higher ambient temperatures, though not many batteries can keep up with this trend.”

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UPS systems have advanced significantly to this point, though Emerson’s Deguara said improvements are constantly made to the design, distribution and functionality. “Much like the move towards modular or ‘containerised’ datacentres, UPS systems are themselves becoming modular, allowing datacentre managers to better match the power protection they need with the footprint they have available and the efficiency targets they’re aiming at,” he said. The datacentres used to aggregate traffic for the National Broadband Network are already using this modular design.

Topic of discussion

Constant developments in the power management space means businesses have access to more efficient solutions over time. Emerson’s Deguara said these changes are both externally visible, such as the size, footprint, and modularity, and internal such as transformer-free designs. “UPS systems are no longer standalone solutions, although many are still used this way, but rather part of a broader DCIM approach to optimising efficiency and availability,” he said.

Although UPS can be classified as a mature product set, Schneider Electric’s Tyrer said there is always an opportunity for partners to revisit existing customers. Energy efficiency, power path redundancy and UPS management are some potential topics. “These are all discussions that will lead to opportunities for partner to either replace or upgrade existing systems,” Tyrer said.

Service and technology refreshes are key opportunities DPSA’s Tesson sees for partners and resellers in the local market. On-selling service and maintenance on UPS and other power management tools are particularly lucrative. “They can often be as much as or more per annum than the up-front cost of the unit,” Tesson said.

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Tags VMwarePower Managementemerson network powerDPSAEaton Electrical

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