Can Software-Defined Power Transform Data Center Infrastructure?

May 10, 2018
Startup Virtual Power Systems specializes in software-defined power, and hopes to use automation and on-demand provisioning to bring new levels of efficiency to data center power distribution.

Virtualization has transformed the use of servers, storage and networking. Will electricity be next?

That’s the ambition of Virtual Power Systems (VPS), a startup based in Milpitas, Calif that specializes in software-defined power. The company offers software, hardware appliances and lithium-ion batteries to optimize power distribution within a data center.

The concept is similar to the role lithium-ion batteries play in a hybrid car, providing energy as needed, and then charging when not in use. The batteries and IT resources are managed by a software suite created by Virtual Power Systems.  This approach effectively creates pools of power that can be applied to IT assets in a granular fashion.

As with server virtualization, software-defined power offers the promise of bringing new levels of efficiency and automation to data centers. That includes reallocating power from underused racks to IT gear that requires additional power.

“What we’re doing is connecting the power control plane, and tying power control to automation and orchestration,” said Steve Houck, the CEO of Virtual Power Systems.  Houck is a veteran tech executive who was previously COO of DataCore software, following sales leadership positions at EMC, VMware and Corel.

“While IT operators have come to rely on the many benefits of virtualization when it comes to servers, storage and networking in data centers, these technologies haven’t been extended to the foundation of all data center equipment – power,” said Houck, who said the company’s solution will allow users to “instantly unlock previously unusable power capacity for major operational and bottom-line benefits.”

Power Costs A Bottom-Line Issue

Power has always been a bottom line issue for data centers, with utility bills representing one of the largest expenses in any facility. The industry has spent years developing best practices to improve the energy efficiency of data centers, seeking to reduce costs and environmental impact. As a result, large users are interested in technology that can bring more flexibility and granular management of power.

VPS says it has proof-of-concept installations underway with “leading colocation providers, hyperscalers and global enterprise accounts,” including SAP.  Virtual Power Systems is also working with most major vendors of UPS (uninterruptible power supply) equipment to ensure their systems are compatible with its offerings.

There are several potential benefits of software-defined provisioning of power. VPS says its technology offers

  • At The Rack: VPS says it technology allows data center operators to share power across racks, recapturing stranded power from underutilized racks and making it available to racks that require additional power. This function also allows providers to prioritize power availability for the most mission-critical racks, and add new racks without having to add power.
  • At the Node: Power can be intelligently allocated between compute nodes based on need and historical patterns, enabling power-capping and granular power policies in service-level agreements.
  • At the Utility: The ability to integrate multiple power sources and switch between them based on availability, cost or demand. VPS says its technology makes it easier to integreate renewable energy, and can even enable generators to be used as power “amplifiers,” adding additional capacity, rather than solely for failovers.

Lithium-ion Batteries Enable Elastic Demand

How does it work? Virtual Power Systems uses a combination of software and distributed batteries to conduct peak shaving, using the batteries to store power and allocate it to the system when more is needed, creating a more elastic system for distributing power across resources. The batteries and power flows are managed by the company’s ICE (Intelligent Control of Energy) software suite, which allocates power from by utility sources, UPS systems and batteries.

“Conceptually, ICE Hardware and Software introduce a hypervisor like abstraction between the three power control points and IT infrastructure to produce power pooling and elasticity,” the company says . This dynamically distributes and allocates power, increasing capacity utilization of the infrastructure.”

A Virtual Power Systems rack-mountable battery appliance. (Image: VPS)

ICE software connects with power and IT systems over Ethernet, collects power use data at server, rack, row and data center level, and intelligently controls power distribution in and to racks. There are two hardware components of the VPS system:

  • ICE Block – A UL-certified lithium-ion battery appliance that sits in a rack and executes the power control across the data center. Each ICE Block can support two racks, pooling power and making it available as needed.
  • ICE Server – The server uses AI and machine learning ML algorithms to share power among underutilized and overutilized areas to optimize usage and efficiency. The ICE Server can tie into DCIM (Data Center Infrastructure Mangement) software and allocate power based on costs and workloads.

Power equipment vendor CUI Inc. launched the first commercial product based on VPS technology in March, when it began selling a UL-certified ICE Block lithium-ion battery appliance.

Houck says Virtual Power Systems creates a “hardware-agnostic power control plane,” with the ICE software sitting between the power hardware and the IT equipment. He says the company has worked closely with UPS manufacturers to ensure compatibility with their equipment. Schneider and CUI have licensed VPS’ technology, and the company is also working with Vertiv, Eaton, Artesyn and CE+T.

The VPS software suite includes an OS/orchestration platform, and applications to manage power at the server, rack, branch circuit or data center level. Virtual Power Systems also has a cloud platform that can provide centralized management, a feature that would enable users to manage assets across a geographically distributed portfolio. That’s a feature that could be of interest to companies building networks of edge data centers, which in many cases are envisioned as unmanned “light out” facilities.

The cost of the solution includes the hardware and a per-rack software license fee.

Last week VPS released an update version of its ICE software-defined power application suite, adding the ability to continue to manage power during a facility-level telecommunications failure. The company also said it is developing a virtual machine orchestration module through integration with vSphere, which is slated for release in the next quarter.

‘This Completely Disrupts’ Tier Thinking

Virtual Power Systems has outlined many potential benefits for software-defined power. Houck said the company’s primary competition is in-house systems developed by hyperscale providers.

So what are the roadblocks to adoption? Houck says that that embracing software-defined power means letting go of long-held standards that focus on reliability through hardware redundancy, including the Uptime Institute’s Tier System, which rates data centers based on how they configure power equipment like UPS units and backup generators.

“I think one of the bigger challenges in Western Europe and the U.S. is that most data centers and public clouds are built atop data center classifications and tiers 1-4, and that’s very entrenched,” said Houck, who joined VPS last August as its new CEO, succeeding founder Shankar Ramamurthy, who is now executive chairman. “This completely disrupts that. But there’s also market pressure, and customers are demanding more power. A lot of data centers can’t draw more from the utility, but there is nowhere to go except getting more out of your existing power capacity. Colo operators are embracing this.

“The big question and provocation we are working on is that this is a solution that address a problem most people aren’t acknowledging that they have,” he said. “Software-defined power is solving one of the biggest problems in the data center. “

About the Author

Rich Miller

I write about the places where the Internet lives, telling the story of data centers and the people who build them. I founded Data Center Knowledge, the data center industry's leading news site. Now I'm exploring the future of cloud computing at Data Center Frontier.

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