There’s a lot going on in a data center, and the facility’s collection of routers, switches, firewalls, storage systems, and servers all consume a lot of electricity.

A data center’s power path, however, has become more efficient over the years, according to an industry expert.

Frank DeLattre, Executive VP, Sales and Marketing at the Wake Forest, NC-based power distributor Gateview Technologies, was one of three speakers who led a presentation titled Effective Power Management: Minimizing Downtime and Maximizing Efficiency.

In the live Q&A, DeLattre highlighted a power-management component that has improved over the years: the uninterruptible power supply (UPS). Through energy stored in a battery or supercapacitor, the UPS provides backup power in case of failure.

A typical energy path for a data center: Power enters a building at medium or low voltage. Switch gear then distributes the power through the data center into a UPS.

And the UPS is getting better and better, says DeLattre. Economy, or ECO, modes place electronics like the inverter, which creates AC voltage from DC sources, on standby until needed – leading to record-high power rates.

“UPSes are now getting to the point where they’re 96 percent efficient, where only maybe 10 years ago, they were in the high 80 percent efficiencies,” DeLattre told the Tech Briefs audience. “Even today, with the UPSes operating in what they call ECO mode, they can get up to 99 percent efficiency."

So, what led to a better power path, and the improvements in data center power efficiency? A reader had the following question for DeLattre.

“What are the main drivers that led to an increased or improved efficiency of data centers over time. Efficient electronics? Cooling?”

Read the edited response from DeLattre below.

Frank DeLattre

Frank DeLattre, Gateview Technologies: Most of the cost of operating a data center is tied up into power and cooling. Efficiency becomes very important. I talked a little bit about some of the gains that have happened with the UPS system, the device that provides the backup power in case you lose utility power. There have been efficiency gains in terms of operating modes, where those UPSes typically would have converted everything from AC to a DC source (where the batteries are) and then back into an AC. Any time you do conversion of power, you’re losing efficiency. So, some of the UPSes have operating modes where they don’t change the entire power coming in back to AC. They actually wait for a power event to happen, before interjecting the backup power. That’s improved the efficiency of those devices from the mid-80 percent all the way up to the 99 percent that we see today.

In addition, with power electronics, the power supplies themselves have become more efficient, and more able to be optimized based on what their loads are. I’ll give you a good example of some of the things going on with cloud computing and virtualization.

In the past, you might have a company that has a server, and it might be operating maybe at 50 percent of its capacity; operating anything at half its capacity typically leads to lower efficiency in power. And so now companies are virtualizing computers. A computer can be virtualized to be acting like three or four different computers to the user, but it’s really just one computer doing all the processing. So, you’re maximizing the power that that computer is being able to provide. You’re running one computer at full capacity vs three or four at maybe 25 percent capacity. That greatly improves the efficiency of that power supply.

Third, on the cooling side, it used to be that when you had big cooling fans or pumps that were circulating in water or air, those pumps were always running at full speed or capacity. Now, a lot of those pumps and fans are controlled with variable speed controllers, which means when full capacity is not needed, you can vary the output speed or the flow, to be able to match the conditions and operate them at a higher efficiency. All these things combined have really improved the efficiency of the data center environment.

What do you think? Share your questions and comments below.

Watch the full presentation: Effective Power Management: Minimizing Downtime and Maximizing Efficiency.