Three trends that could transform the energy efficient data center

The quest for the energy efficient data center has largely been the focus of webscale data centers like Google, Facebook and Amazon. But data center efficiency as a focus of smaller companies is increasing. Part of this is driven by the continued push for virtualized computing environments, and part of this is being driven by increasing concern over the power envelopes of the hardware that drive data centers.

But outside of these core trends that we’re aware of, I’ve been more interested of late in what other disruptive forces could impact the operations of the modern data center. I spent some time recently with Clemens Pfeiffer, the CTO at Power Assure, a data center infrastructure management (DCIM) company focused on using software based power management tools to shed and shift load. We geeked out on data center efficiency. Here are the three trends I came away with that are dark horse to transform the data center but also would have the potential to be truly disruptive.

1) You say AC, I say DC. The conversion steps involved in converting AC current to DC and back to AC involve energy loss. So for the last decade increasing thought has been given to the possibility of vindicating Thomas Edison’s preference for direct current and figuring out ways to run more hardware on direct current.

ABB is working on its own HVDC (high-voltage direct current) technology to transport DC over long distances, something that has always been difficult due to the fact that breaking the circuit on DC lines is problematic. Part of the drive for DC also is coming from renewable energy because wind and solar output DC power and if it could be transported over DC lines, then there would be additional power savings.

Validus DC, which was acquired by ABB, is pushing DC power in the data center. Historically IT equipment didn’t support DC power, but server racks are appearing that are “hybrid,” meaning you can slide either a DC power supply or an AC power supply into the chassis.

DC power suppliers are claiming a 10 percent efficiency improvement, but don’t count on AC power suppliers to take the threat lying down. They’re working on offering more efficient power supplies that clean the power in order to improve the efficiency of their uninterruptible power supplies (UPS). Still, the conversation about DC power in the data center is beginning.

2) Could building management systems (BMS) take a backseat to DCIM? Pfeiffer certainly thinks so, and would be happy if companies that have data centers as key elements of their infrastructure started using DCIM platforms as the starting point for managing their infrastructure. A subtle clash is occurring at companies where facilities managers, who are used to managing heating, cooling and lighting with advanced management tools, are rubbing up against data center managers who have their own responsibilities to manage and cool a sea of computing hardware.

How will they learn to work with one another? “Today, most DCIM solutions are billed as an add on to the existing infrastructure. But longer term the trend will turn around. You take the DCIM system first and you add the modules in that you need to go all the way down to the facility and IT management environment,” Pfeiffer said.

BMS market leaders like Schneider Electric, Siemens and Johnson Controls have other plans here and are unlikely to cede control of the market. But at the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some of these companies acquire DCIM tools or build their own. In fact, Siemens launched its own DCIM tool just last week.

3) Demand response and the data center. There’s been talk for the past year that data centers could shed load and participate in demand response programs for utilities, a move that would generate cash for data centers. I still think we’re a ways off from this becoming reality but I do think there are compelling reliability reasons for data centers to start experimenting with shifting load between main and backup data centers.

If data centers train regularly in this practice, their ability to respond to outages will improve. And if data centers get efficient at shifting application tasks, it stands to reason that they’ll start being able to shift usage to reduce power use and someday be able to participate in demand response programs.

Clearly we’re evolving beyond power usage effectiveness (PUE) as the singular focus of how evolved a data center is in terms of energy efficiency. As we move toward some exciting new possibilities like DC power or demand response participation, it’ll be up to a few brave IT companies to test out these ideas and see if they hold water.

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Adam Lesser

Cleantech Curator Gigaom Research

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