Electronic Design

EE's Vision Drives Millions In Data-Center Power Savings

A strong personal vision drives many of you EEs to "find a better way" to do things. When there's a market opportunity to realize that vision, you can make a huge impact. I can find no better example than Neil Rasmussen, EE and one of the founders of American Power Conversion (APC). A recent APC press day offered Rasmussen a platform for his "powerful" vision. It also showcased some great new APC technology, including fuel cells for data centers and a mobile data center in a tractor-trailer.

Rasmussen and two fellow electronic power engineers from MIT's Lincoln Labs founded APC in 1981. With the burgeoning PC market, they foresaw the need for uninterrupted power supplies (UPSs) and introduced their first UPS, the 750, in 1984. Twenty high-growth years later, APC has passed the $1.7 billion annual revenue mark as a global leader in end-to-end ac- and dc-based backup power products and services, including surge suppressors, power conditioning equipment, and precision cooling equipment.

Given the remarkable success of Rasmussen's original engineering vision, it was compelling to hear his viewpoint as the company's CTO on the next wave of APC growth—the move to larger systems for "network-critical physical infrastructure" (NCPI). The company's InfraStruXure offers standardized components to create modular solutions for power, cooling, management, and services.

Rasmussen's current focus is on data centers, where he sees a serious lack of scientific planning for efficient cooling systems, and hence, a tremendous amount of wasted power. He estimates 27% of electricity is wasted in today's typical inefficient networking center. That adds up to companies potentially saving some serious bucks: A 1-MW data center (with 100 racks at 10 kW per rack) will use $20 million worth of electricity over its lifetime (at 10 cents/kW hour).

"A data center is a huge transformer. Electric power goes in and waste heat goes out. Only 30% of that electricity is actually going to the IT equipment. The rest goes to other elements: chillers, humidifiers, UPS, etc., with cooling using 50% of the power," he says, noting that much of the power waste is due to poor layout and configuration of the data center. "If an IT manager moves an air conditioner over 10 feet, you could lose or gain $500,000 worth of electricity. Most people are not aware of the inefficiencies they are creating."

So, APC has been doing the scientific research that Rasmussen says was lacking. APC has been using the resulting data to create a standardized approach to data-center layout—saving $5 million worth of power during the lifetime of that typical 1-MW data center.

Mapping the flow of hot and cool air in a typical data center "starts looking like the weather. It becomes chaotic" as the hot and cool air mix in the room.

"Our position is, if you need to map out a room simulation, we screwed up. The flow should be standardized, and it should just work," he says.

To achieve this standardization, APC has moved away from the floor-cooled approach and now integrates cooling technology into the data-center racks themselves. InfraStruXure creates a dedicated high-density data-center enclosure, including a Plexiglas top, so the cooling equipment is integrated in a sealed space with the server equipment. The hot air from the servers is "neutralized" only to required operating temperature. That's a major efficiency booster, says Rasmussen, compared to the traditional attempt to cool via the ambient mixing of hot exhaust and chilled air.

Beyond wasting energy, he says, the traditional raised-floor cooling system in a data center just isn't up to the job of cooling today's blade servers. The floor-tile systems' cooling capabilities max out at about 4.5 kW per rack. That's nowhere near the power density of the new servers coming to market, where maximum power density could reach 28 kW per rack. So many companies' blade servers, says Rasmussen, are currently sitting in labs.

"They can't get them installed because they can't figure out how to keep them cooled," he says. Rasmussen's anticipation of these limitations led to APC's creation of the new modularized data-center products and its move into the large-systems segment.

The fast-moving trend to higher power densities means a high-growth demand for the integrated power management and cooling approach. The InfraStruXure solutions grew at a 90% rate in 2004, driving APC's total revenue growth of 16%.

It was inspiring to hear Rasmussen talk about the science of data centers, to see the application of that engineering create major energy savings and a tremendously successful company. And it was fascinating to have a chance to see some of the latest APC developments (For more, go to www.elecdesign.com and see Drill Deeper 10677). Congratulations to our APC readers on their innovative new products for the NCPI market.

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