Avoiding Power Interruptions at Data Centers

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Kyle Ellenberger of Power Systems & Controls has seen big changes in the data center industry since the earliest few data centers were launched in the United States.

“The first data centers were crazy—they had soldiers guarding them and barbed wire. No, you can’t roll up in a tank and steal data,” he says.

But things have changed a lot since then. Just about everyone recognizes that the most persistent threats to data are infinitely more likely to weasel their way down a thin strand of wire than rumble through the gates in a frontal assault. For Ellenberger, avoiding power interruptions represents one of the main lines of defense for critical facilities.

“When people think about UPS systems they think about data centers, and that makes sense,” he says. “UPS is about a $10 billion industry, and data centers, data processing, and data storage are probably responsible for about $9 billion of that.”

He adds that the buildup should not be entirely surprising. Referencing Moore’s Law and Kepler’s Law predicting the growth and importance of data and computing capacity, Ellenberger says, “Moore’s Law says that data processing doubles every 16 months. Kepler’s Law is that Data storage doubles every 12 months. From these laws it was clear that data centers from their inception were going to come into their own rather quickly.”

With the primacy of data centers in economic life, a critical necessity for reliable power has also arrived.

According to Ellenberger, losing power in a data center can mean that heads will roll.

In fact, he says the threat of losing power is taken so seriously in the critical facility power industry that he’s heard people in the business use the expression: “Death before downtime.”

Fortunately, there’s a way to tell who in particular might find themselves in the position to take such an oath. As he puts it: “If the power goes out and you can go home before it comes back on, then you’re not mission critical, and you can relax.”

Today, the armed guards and perimeter defenses have largely faded from the data center picture. Ellenberger says that data centers can be found distributed almost anywhere in the world in discrete unmarked buildings, each one closely duplicating its peers both in its operations and the data contained within. The data center business philosophy has evolved to one of safety in numbers. They call the current strategy redundancy, and it is the core of protecting the bits and bytes that run much of today’s economic productivity. Data centers are backed up by still more data centers and ideally, the power supplying each data center is backed up by more power.

A Squirrel and a Cable
Michael Balles’s firm, Venyu Solutions, has data centers in Baton Rouge, LA. He explains that his company serves a number of critical functions.

“We serve anyone who needs data: health care, insurance, sports ticketing companies, and computer colocation operations where they can bring in their own computers. Our customers are all over—wherever you can make a connection.”

In some cases, the data he stewards can be critical to health and survival. “I have health care clients for which power loss is potentially life-threatening to patients in the hospital,” says Balles.

That means that the servers need to be kept up-and-running under all circumstances.

It is well known that two of the main threats to data storage, management, and transmission are excessive heat and power loss. However, to be precise, even temperature control in data centers is at the mercy of the availability of high-quality power, making power loss the top threat. Balles says this enemy of data centers’ critical functions can creep up with little warning.

“Virtually anything can result in a power loss—a guy running into a utility pole, a squirrel chewing a wire, or a substation problem, almost all of which I have no control.”

In other words, power loss from the utility cannot be prevented. What happens after a power loss is therefore critical to whether a data center enterprise rises or falls. As Balles says, “The heartbeat of the data industry is electricity—without power there is no business.”

Venyu selected four Generac Gemini units to provide backup power to its newest facility, which it plans to install working closely with Generac. “Everything we do is critical and requires high redundancy,” says Balles.

From an operations and maintenance standpoint, he’s found Generac to be superior. And for its capacity, it has the highest reliability.

In the name of fail-safe redundancy, Balles also put a few extras into his Baton Rouge II facility. “I got four generators even though I only need three.”

In addition to overall backup power, the site will feature a Generac 80-kW backup generator specifically to power fire pumps in case of an outage.

“It’s the only data facility that will have an independently powered generator for the fire pump,” explains Balles. “If we lose power, we still need to have power for the fire pumps.”

He adds that it was vital to have a source of backup with at least 20 hours of run time. It’s so important in fact, that he considers the onsite generation capability that the Generac Geminis provide to be the facility’s primary power source even though they need operate only during emergencies. Although the local utility supplies most of operational power needs under normal circumstances, he views the utility as just an “inexpensive alternative” that happens to be available most of the time.

According to Balles, the Generac Gemini diesel generators are only part of the complex system designed to deliver continuous power to the data center’s critical circuitry and computers regardless of the condition of the grid. With Double Conversion UPS units powering all of the servers and isolating them electrically from any disturbances to grid power, Balles says, the UPS configuration gives the facility “10 minutes of run time at full load.” But the idea is to never need that 10 minutes of run time if the utility power fails. That’s where the Generac comes into play.

At the first sign of trouble indicating a power outage, he says the BMS for Venyu’s Baton Rouge facility notifies the fast automatic transfer switches to send a signal to the Generac telling it to fire up. Within eight seconds, the generator registers stable power. Within 10 seconds, it latches on to take over the facility’s load, maintaining stable power until grid power can be restored.

Curt Gibson says a unique feature of the Generac is its built-in paralleling capability. That means that any number of units can be easily configured to become synchronized with each other and operate as a single generator. According to him, Generac has codified the complex electronic control required to provide this functionality onto a circuit board installed in each unit.

This is a first in the industry. “We put paralleling on one motherboard,” he says. “It used to be done with a complicated mix and match of various components that would enable

generators to communicate with one another and coordinate their operation. But we’ve made that easy.”

“The paralleling capability is really unique,” says Balles. “We saved a lot of money by not having to purchase additional paralleling gear. And when you’re speaking about millions of dollars, everything counts.”

In addition, it provides an added level of redundancy. If one generator were to experience problems or fail, the other generators in the parallel generation model automatically coordinate among one another to pick up the slack, maintaining a constant output as a system and supporting the load.

The system really needs “no human intervention,” says Balles. However, he cautions that reliable power is not just a matter of having the right technology in place. “We’re on a strict maintenance routine on all of the equipment with a partner from Baton Rouge that comes out monthly.”

Balles says, “I’ve used just about every vendor and I was formerly a consultant in this industry. It’s one of the most important things. Anyone who buys a generator has got to provide maintenance. You can’t just let it sit. A well-maintained diesel generator will last, probably forever. You have to have a good preventive maintenance program in place with a qualified team.

“The generators get a test run every week,” he adds. “We have a building management system and any anomaly will force a phone call to our maintenance provider.”

He gives high marks to the company on its performance. “In all of our testing, Generac has never failed to meet the 10-second startup time.” BE_bug_web

  • Yvonne G.

    An interesting article – and an even more interesting field! We need to up our game around data and data storage. For one, if all the data was still in paper format, we would seriously rethink the amount that we keep. We would be questioning what we save and how much we retain in order to reduce the storage requirements. Energy management starts not just with the outlet but also rethinking the entire system. In addition: why is this facility built in Los Angeles with an average annual temperature of 22 degrees centigrade? Why not build the facility where exterior temperatures automatically reduce interior chilling? And the concept of building a box: what an excellent tool for heat retention rather than heat dissipation! have we learnt nothing from even physiology? Inuit are built to retain heat, just as the Masai are built to dissipate heat. Tall thin structures for heat dissipation, well shaded would reduce power requirements and provide automatic heat dissipation. As I say: energy management is not just about where the power comes from and back up plans but the entire system and questioning every element.


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