Microsoft gets data centres powered up for big UPS turn-off

Keep your site up when the inevitable blackout comes, even if no-one can see it

The problem with data centres is that you have to plug them in. Or to put it another way, the problem with data centres is that they draw their power from a national grid and this ultimately narrows the cost efficiency structure under which they can operate.

Conspicuously creaky and ageing grid networks in (even) advanced first-world nations don’t make matters any better.

More localised power sources such as fuel cells have been popularised through a number of trials. In simple terms, a fuel cell works by converting natural gas into electricity.

Fuel cells can provide better power-delivery-to-server ratios than traditional energy, but this technology is still at Proof of Concept stage to a degree. That being said, vendors such as Bloom Energy and ClearEdge have made inroads into this market and eBay claims to power its entire Salt Lake City, Utah, data centre operation on fuel cells.

But the problem with fuel cells is they have to be run through Uninterruptible Power Supply units (UPSs) – and these cost big money and take up a lot of space.

So troublesome or not, energy innovations are good, but they are only part of the solution. Members of the Open Compute Project (OCP) realise this and many have spent time looking not just at energy, but also on the architectural topologies used for data centre storage itself.

OCP member Microsoft has been building data centres for more than 20 years and reckons it wants to address the energy challenge with a new distributed Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) technology called Local Energy Storage (LES). Microsoft unveiled LES at the Open Compute Project Summit in March.

So what is LES? Well, it’s an integrated power supply and battery combination and it is fully compatible with the Open CloudServer (OCS) v2 chassis system. In other words, there’s “common slot compliancy” all round, so it’s happy days if you’re a data-centre sysadmin who has nightmares about architectural compatibilities and battery back-up structures.

With LES we see a lithium-ion battery installed inside actual physical servers themselves. No UPS system is needed. You can immediately start to think about economies of scale through commodity manufacturing and the distributed maintenance efficiency if each server is replaceable with its own power supply.

Microsoft’s director of engineering for cloud server infrastructure Shaun Harris explains the “key insight” his team had was to completely eliminate the facility UPS and move that capability directly into the IT load.

“[By doing this] we could not only achieve cost reductions and operational simplicity, but could open up a whole new area of architectural innovation by tighter integration of the battery system with the IT management and controls system. These observations led to the design innovations for LES,” Harris blogged here.

As a whole, then, LES claims to be represent low-latency detection and controls not possible in a conventional (usually centralised) UPS systems through more locally integrated energy storage.

The LES design collateral will be available to the OCP community as part of the Open CloudServer (OCS) specification. ®

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