Data Centers Sign Up for an Upgrade

ABB Power Conversion’s Vito Savino elaborates on how data center operators should reimagine the power architectures fueling their facilities.
Vito Savino, Wireline and Data Center Segment Leader, ABB Power Conversion. Image courtesy of ABB Power Conversion

The pandemic has generated an unprecedented demand for cloud services, shaping data center operations for years to come. According to a recent report by ABB Power Conversion dubbed Data Overload: Powering Data Centers in the New Normal, 96 percent of the professionals surveyed reported that demand on their data center increased in 2020, while 53 percent of those are considering power system upgrades in order to meet future demand.

As we continue to rely more on the cloud to power businesses, data center professionals’ concerns regarding services and maintenance, power usage and scalability are certainly justified. In an interview with Commercial Property Executive, Vito Savino, wireline and data center segment leader for ABB Power Conversion, discusses the different approaches operators should take into consideration for smarter management of their data center power systems. He also talks about the increasing importance of greenfield builds.

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According to the latest ABB Power Conversion report, more than half of the data center professionals surveyed are likely to consider power system upgrades. What do these improvements entail?

Savino: These upgrades will consist of the entire scope of power delivery—from the energy source(s) all the way to the rack-mounted IT loads consuming that energy. The ultimate goal is to overcome power capacity constraints and ensure that infrastructure is well-equipped to respond to increasing demand while maintaining maximum uptime and resiliency.

To reach that zenith, data center operators could reconsider their approach to power architectures. For example, adopting a distributed direct current (DC) power architecture can improve power distribution efficiency all the way from the grid to the rack by reducing the number of voltage conversions typically required and can greatly improve a data center’s ability to scale to meet increased demand.

How can data centers minimize their energy use?

Savino: As demand on data centers continues to increase, it has been a challenge for operators to maintain uptime while also conserving energy. The good news is that there is a myriad of ways to reduce a data center’s energy footprint, including but not limited to:

  • Adopting architectures that minimize the number of power conversions required to reach a usable voltage;
  • Utilizing IT loads with higher voltage processors;
  • Leveraging high-efficiency power supplies;
  • Adopting enhanced cooling practices;
  • Plugging into the smart grid, which enables two-way energy and information flow to create an automated and distributed power delivery network.

From a cost and stewardship perspective, every watt counts. Taken together, all of the incremental improvements mentioned above can add up to a very significant energy reduction impact. The benefits of distributed DC power architectures also extend to energy efficiency. With greater flexibility in deploying equipment-specific resources, data center operators will see notable improvements in overall efficiency due to the reduced number of power conversion steps.

Renewable energy for data centers is harder to get in the U.S. than in Europe. Despite this, Digital Realty’s Hillsboro, Ore., data centers are using clean energy, bolstered by PGE’s Green Future Impact program. Are we going to see more similar projects in the future?

Savino: With the growing demand for clean energy sources, the adoption of smart grid technologies and the advances we’re seeing in industrial and business processes, the way we generate, transport and use electricity is increasingly complex. To remain adaptable to the changing times, some of the world’s largest hyperscalers, including Facebook, Microsoft and Google, have already announced major renewable energy deals—and I anticipate that sustainability will continue to be at the forefront of decision-making.

At first glance, the upfront costs associated with incorporating renewable energy solutions can be expensive. However, renewable energy will reduce operating costs for data center operators and lower their reliance on grid operators. Our goal is to deploy technology that is power-agnostic—that is, we want to support all types of infrastructure, and as the momentum towards renewable energy sources gains (green) steam, it’s expected that data center operators will, in tandem, ensure their facilities can link to the power grids, whether they are fueled by natural gas, solar power, wind, etc.  

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Tell us more about greenfield and brownfield data center development strategies.

Savino: One thing we’re seeing is data center operators implementing more DC data center power architectures. The question is when making this switch, should operators take the brownfield approach by building around existing architectures or choosing the greenfield route by developing entirely new infrastructures?

On one hand, a greenfield data center development strategy promises flexibility, expandability and no constraints brought on by existing infrastructures. A brownfield development strategy, on the other hand, is often considered to be more economical and efficient. And we see this supported by our customers that implement DC architectures in existing data centers, which often they aren’t even aware they can do.

Give us some details about ABB Power Conversion and the Edge-distributed data center power architecture.

Savino: In a data center, power density, efficiency and reliability are crucial. Imagine the ability to achieve significantly increased processing capability from modern high-density servers for a nominal increase in power consumption. The impact could be significant in terms of efficiency and operating power costs.

ABB’s Edge-distributed data center power architecture is able to meet these demands, both today and in the future, by providing high power density in a modular solution that can grow with a data centers’ computing needs. Factor in the reduced number of power conversion steps this power architecture uses—and the associated improvements in power efficiency it provides—and operators have a single solution capable of reducing data center power costs, improving white space utilization and transforming bottom lines.

Designed to scale, this approach is precisely what’s needed in a world where rapid, unexpected spikes in data and consumer demand is the new norm and is, in fact, a critical step toward developing data center infrastructures capable of keeping pace with whatever comes next.

What lasting effects will the pandemic have on new investment?

Savino: The abrupt increase of remote employees as a result of the coronavirus pandemic led to a significant increase in the amount of data created and consumed. Last year, it was predicted that more than 59 zettabytes of data will be created, captured, copied and consumed in the world, with growth to continue through 2024, with a five-year compound annual growth rate of 26 percent.

As digital transformation continues to accelerate to meet consumer data demands, we can anticipate seeing spikes in investments throughout 2021 and beyond. In fact, Gartner recently reported that end-user spending on global data center infrastructure is projected to climb to $200 billion this year and will continue to grow year-over-year through 2024. These investments in new data center infrastructures are anticipated to bolster uptime and further help data center operators remain resilient against unanticipated future crises.

What key considerations should data center operators take into account in 2021?

Savino: The acceleration of digitization across every industry caused the demand for hyperscale vendors and public cloud infrastructures to skyrocket in 2020—and I anticipate that it will continue this year.

At the same time, as the world continues to adopt smart technologies in their homes and in business, alongside the rise of 5G, the demand for edge computing and edge data centers to provide reliability, speed and connectivity will cause this market to flourish. We wouldn’t be surprised if hyperscale providers began to dabble in the edge computing market this year, as well.