The UPS features most desired by data centre operators

Today’s data centre operators have extremely high expectations from their UPS systems, and rightly so. As the national grid continues to issue periodic warnings over supply, and with ever-increasing costs for power and environmental legislation, only the most advanced and efficient UPS technology should be deemed suitable for these critical environments. So, as KUP prepares to launch its 2012 data centre survey, it is worth reviewing the results from last year’s study to predict how the situation has changed and how data centre operators can achieve a configuration best suited to the current situation.

A decade is a long time in anyone’s book but when you are talking about IT equipment, it’s an entire lifetime. Today’s computer hardware is a very different beast to ten years ago and the development of new IT products has impacted data centres both directly and indirectly over that period. IT has evolved from a simple, yet often frustrating, aid to productivity to a truly essential resource; vital to any organisation’s survival. This on-going technological evolution has naturally had an effect on the role of uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs). Whereas once a UPS was used primarily to support the graceful and timely shutdown of ICT equipment and industrial & plant machinery, today its role has grown in line with the importance of IT equipment being online 24/7/365. This means current UPS systems, especially in the DC arena, are more often employed to manage the transition from mains power to a generator and back to the mains when power returns. In addition, the UPS is expected to constantly and efficiently filter the mains to ensure a constant flow of clean power to IT equipment. And not only that, users also demand higher reliably than ever before, with 99.9999 per cent availability almost the established standard.

UPS configurations best suited to today’s business

Kohler Uninterruptible Power Ltd’s 2011 survey investigated exactly which power issues concern data centre operators the most, and how they expect their UPS suppliers to respond. A look at the survey results and respondents’ priorities provides the opportunity to predict if the situation has changed in the past 12 months and offers insight for achieving future-proofed UPS configurations best suited to today’s business and technical pressures.

One of the key findings from the survey was the importance operators place on reliability and it is easy to see why. Over 75% of the survey respondents reported a power outage within the last 12 months, while 78% believe the situation will worsen over the next ten years. After looking at national records for the whole of 2011, there is nothing to suggest that this issue has decreased and statistics showed a similar number of power outages and power issues across the UK in 2010 and 2011. Looking ahead, the situation is unlikely to improve, even marginally, as the UK is expected to lose up to19 Giga Watts of generating capacity by 2018.

Rising energy costs were another major concern to 80% of those questioned; with the reduction of their organisation’s carbon footprint becoming a growing priority, especially as environmental legislation becomes increasingly punitive to non-compliant organisations. In the year since, fuel prices have continued to surge and tensions have been growing in oil producing regions. This increasing volatility means prices are destined to go in one direction and this view is supported by the world’s largest independent energy trader, which warned in February that oil prices could surge this year to a record high due to growing geopolitical tensions in the Middle East. Ian Taylor, chief executive of Vitol, said his main scenario envisaged oil prices remaining at ‘around current levels for the balance of 2012’, but warned it was possible that the oil price could surge to $150. ‘It is unlikely, but it is possible,’ he told the FT.

The survey demonstrated that, while 27% were driven by an altruistic desire to reduce their organisation’s emissions levels, 63% currently regard ‘cost’ as the primary driver to reducing energy consumption – demonstrating that the government still has much to do if it wishes to engage with almost three-quarters of DC related businesses and suggesting that financial drivers to reducing emissions are likely still the best way to illicit change.

Users’ purchases of capital equipment are likewise affected; 82% of respondents regarded energy efficiency as a key buying consideration and nearly 54% reported that modern UPS systems, designed and manufactured with environmental considerations at their core, have significantly improved power consumption and cooling issues within their organisation. This improvement is driven by transformerless technology within modern UPS design. It has improved energy efficiency by around 5% across the UPS’s whole load span, substantially reducing energy and cooling costs. Transformerless UPSs also present a higher and more stable input power factor, which further reduces input current and electricity costs.

Transformerless implementations also offer significantly reduced size and weight, which can have enormous implications for power protection, because UPS systems can become sets of rack-mounted modules operating in parallel, rather than monolithic floor standing units. Such configurations improve reliability through improved resilience to failure and improved availability. Anecdotally, it is expected that as more organisations switch aging UPS equipment for the latest technology the percentage of those witnessing the benefits of the latest technology will grow accordingly.

Resilience to failure is a property of N+1 redundant systems where the UPS can fully support the critical load even if one module fails. UPS availability increases because a faulty module can be quickly replaced, typically within about half an hour, compared with the six hours typically needed for component level diagnosis and repair. Additionally, battery reliability is improved through better charging circuitry.

Although these hardware improvements are welcome, they are not the whole story. Over 90% of the survey’s respondents believed that maintenance and emergency call out services are as important as the hardware itself. This reflects the mentality that availability is vital and without exemplary support, users are risking downtime and extended periods off-line. The ever-increasing criticality of data centre loads means this requirement is destined to remain a key consideration. From a user point of view, to maximize peace of mind, users should arrange a support package comprising both scheduled maintenance and assured emergency response. Scheduled maintenance minimizes the need for emergency callouts by spotting deteriorating components for replacement before failure. As a complete power protection installation often extends to a UPS, batteries and generator, it makes sense to use a single supplier who understands all of these, how they interact with one another and therefore how to provide an integrated power support strategy. An emergency callout service appropriate to the load’s criticality should be negotiated. Guaranteed on-site response times should be set, backed by 24/7 telephone support and optionally by remote monitoring.

By reviewing the 2011 survey, it is possible to gauge if the situation has evolved in the past twelve months. What is clear is that, if anything, the situation has deteriorated further and shows how UPS users’ concerns reflect our current environment. Inexorable growth in data centre demand, coupled with increasing concerns about UK power grid availability lead users to value reliability highly, while viewing reliability as the sum of the equipment and its support. With rising energy costs and increasingly aggressive ‘green’ legislation, energy saving has become essential for economising, and to a lesser but still significant extent, so has meeting carbon reduction goals. Most of those KUP questioned already have carbon reduction and product efficiencies strategies in place and modern UPS technologies are without doubt helping users to achieve these goals, but with several other factors being recognised as important, the right choice of supplier is essential as well.

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