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Green Data Centers: Batteries Included

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The battery’s role in the data center is undergoing some changes. Generally, uninterruptable power supplies (UPS) use huge banks of batteries to store energy and help data centers ride out unexpected power disruptions. It’s a crucial function, but hardly an exciting one.

Now, thanks to the efforts of some companies that are looking to improve energy efficiency and contain IT costs, batteries are making the leap from UPSes and getting cozier with servers and storage systems. This week, we explore a couple of new twists in data center energy storage that may open new market opportunities for IT vendors and battery makers.

MAID with Batteries

On paper, MAID (massive array of idle disks), sounds like the just the cure for energy-hogging storage infrastructures. Instead of keeping disk drives spinning 24/7, MAID systems from companies like COPAN Systems spin up drives individually as data is accessed and “idles” them during periods of inactivity, drastically cutting power consumption. The bad news is that there is a performance penalty as the disks spin up, so MAID technology is best suited for data that doesn’t require instantaneous retrieval. Also, other storage market technologies like data deduplication and solid-state storage are overshadowing MAID in the marketplace.

However, one storage startup is taking the core energy-saving feature of MAID and blending it with flash memory and batteries to deliver arrays that promise good performance and handily beat traditional storage systems in terms of energy efficiency. Fresh-out-of-stealth Locust Storage made a big splash last week by taking home the grand prize at the GreenBeat Innovation Competition (in a tie with demand-response innovator CPower).

Locust’s storage systems supplement flash storage with specialized software that delivers fast data retrieval and minimizes the time a disk drive is kept spinning. Also key is the system’s lithium-ion battery pack, which as founder and CEO Seth Georgion told GreenBeat, is instrumental in “providing excess energy when driven under hard use and storing energy when demand is low.” Taken altogether, these elements add up to a storage system that consumes just 5-10 percent of the power it takes to run a traditional, disk-based array. It’s also an innovation that allows Locust’s hardware to draw electricity from power-over-Ethernet (PoE) energy distribution systems, which deliver a fraction of the wattage of the tried-and-true power socket.

On-board Battery Backup

One way Google’s data centers achieved that famous PUE rating of just 1.15, is by foregoing huge UPSes and outfitting each custom server with a 12-volt backup battery, effectively merging UPS functionality with the server.  It’s a strategy that brings 99.9 percent efficiency to backup power supplies vs. 92-95 percent for traditional UPS systems.

Now Facebook is following suit. Besides the energy-saving prospects, on-board battery backup is a big money saver. According Amir Michael, Facebook’s server and data center engineer (and formerly a member of Google’s data center team), the strategy can help companies save millions that they would otherwise spend on UPSes and power distribution units. For now, these setups are mostly custom jobs, but if the trend catches on, you can expect to see server vendors offer on-board battery backup as an option in short order.

Question of the week

Do you expect to see more IT vendors outfit their wares with on-board batteries?