Rise of GaN Technologies Bodes Well for Data Center Efficiency

Sept. 17, 2018
This is the first entry in a four-part Data Center Frontier special report series that explores how forefront Gallium Nitride, or GaN technologies, are showing significant benefits for data center refreshes. This first article sets the stage and discusses the state of today’s data center in regards to efficiency and data center design, including inclusion of more power-efficient solutions. 

This is the first entry in a four-part Data Center Frontier special report series that explores how forefront Gallium Nitride, or GaN technologies, are showing significant benefits for data center refreshes. This first article sets the stage and discusses the state of today’s data center in regards to design and data center efficiency, including inclusion of more power-efficient solutions. 

Download the full report.

Nearly every data center project — whether related to facility space, equipment implementations, software rollouts, infrastructure upgrades or other areas of responsibility — today revolves around the demand for more utilization through improved efficiencies (meaning do more while remaining economical). To achieve this, cross-function data center managers are adopting smaller facility footprints, new architecture and infrastructure design concepts, and more power-efficient solutions.

However, while power efficiency is routinely considered as it interplays with all data center elements, power costs alone only account for approximately 10 percent of a facility’s OPEX today. What’s more, data center managers are taxed not only with identifying smarter technologies and physical spaces, but with implementing complex controls and training staff to manage them, which means power ranks lower on the list of priorities, perhaps fairly so until now: That OPEX percentage is expected to rise to 15 percent within five years with no clear or guaranteed limit, considering the influencing factors mapped out next.

Cross-function data center managers are adopting smaller facility footprints, new architecture and infrastructure design concepts, and more power efficient solutions.

Statistically Speaking

Inarguably, data centers are the hub of most organizations small to large. And, changing business conditions continue to put more and more demand on the data center rack by rack. For context, 70 percent of respondents covered in AFCOM’s State of the Data Center Report 2018 indicate that rack power density increased over the past three years, with 21 percent noting it increased significantly. Related, the estimated mean target for rack power density across all centers is 7.3 kW.

In addition, the data center landscape is changing due to the newly trending edge computing designs. Edge computing directly impacts the way smaller data center locations are deployed, from rack density to power consumption. In fact, edge data centers are designed to be more dense, capable of supporting various types of workloads. Remember, the entire purpose behind edge is to place data centers close to where data is being created and consumed. This means that, although there will be a greater number of data centers deployed, they must be smaller and hyper-efficient to address the fact that they may be erected in locations that cannot accommodate resource requirements for large-scale data centers. So, for evolving designs like edge, data center managers will benefit from advanced power solutions delivering higher performance, higher power efficiency and greater power density.

U.S. data centers use more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, requiring roughly 34 giant (500-megawatt) coal-powered plants.

Meanwhile, the same report also reveals that data center capacity requirements as a whole show little growth.

This all suggests that data center managers overseeing architecture, infrastructure and IT are actively looking for solutions that offer more performance and better efficiency while taking up less space. This is with good reason given that power consumption increases as rack density increases.

Data center power use is escalating. IDC research shows that energy consumption per server increases 9 percent per year globally as performance growth pushes demand. Related, NRDC reports that global data centers used roughly 416 terawatts (4.16 x 1014 watts—or about 3% of the total electricity) last year, nearly 40% more than the entire United Kingdom. And this consumption will double every four years.

NRDC also reports that U.S. data centers use more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, requiring roughly 34 giant (500-megawatt) coal-powered plants.

DatacenterDynamics also notes that data centers currently consume about 31 GW of energy. The average total power to rack is about 4.05 kW today, with 58 percent of racks consuming up to 5 kW per rack; 28 percent consuming between 5 and 10 kW per rack; and, the remainder consuming more than 10 kW per rack.

Furthermore, Gartner estimates that ongoing power costs are rising at least 10 percent per year due to increasing cost per kWh and underlying demand, especially for high-power density servers. Note that total power costs currently account for approximately 10 percent of data center OPEX, a number expected to rise to 15 percent within five years.

In short, power density demands are ramping as power consumption and cost are mounting, with no foreseeable end. This means identifying more power efficient solutions at every turn is critical to ensure that power’s ranking remains lower on the OPEX list.

Recognizing Opportunity

For the better part of a century, power electronics relied on silicon semiconductors to convert energy to power. Generation after generation brought about better technology efficiencies and performance, which, in turn, yielded innovation around highvoltage power supplies and power systems within equipment that positively aided data centers.

Trench silicon metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistors (MOSFETs) proved optimal for low to intermediate voltage applications. Superjuncton MOSFETs served as the silicon solution for higher voltage applications, given their ability to switch faster with less resistance (mΩ-cm2). In 2012, this technology ultimately enabled development of the first 80 Plus Titanium server power supply — a power supply running at a remarkable 96 percent efficiency.

However, that’s essentially where the power electronics industry has remained to date — and where it could, in theory, stay as silicon is reaching its limits per Moore’s law. The technology has been optimized to its maximum potential in many cases. To get more performance or efficiency out of silicon MOSFET power systems would mean incurring unreasonable costs that could not be recovered in end product sales.

Use of rack mount power supplies and other equipment built using high-voltage GaN can produce the power density required to maximize rack space and, ultimately, a data center’s overall performance.

Luckily for data center managers, the power electronics industry is no longer accepting the status quo. Semiconductor pioneers have taken this mature, conservative market and reignited innovation with high-voltage GaN, a disruptive technology that, when compared to silicon:

  • Increases power density by as much as 40 percent
  • Increases power efficiency of the PSU rectifier stage to more than 99 percent
  • Switches two to three times faster
  • Reduces heat dissipation
  • Reduces overall power system cost

GaN is the new high-efficiency power semiconductor material that operates cooler, smaller and faster.

Being cognizant of this breakthrough can have notable impact on a data center’s bottom line over time, which will be demonstrated in the next section. Perhaps more importantly, use of rack mount power supplies and other equipment built using high-voltage GaN can produce the power density required to maximize rack space and, ultimately, a data center’s overall performance.

GaN use can mean higher performance, higher power output in the same space. Alternatively, GaN use can mean the same performance and the same power output in a smaller space. Increase the number of racks, decrease the number of racks… for data center managers coping with the intense demands noted earlier, flexibility can breed opportunity. Lastly, innovative GaN-based solutions are already in the market, demonstrating their benefits in real-world applications.

It’s time to confidently let go of legacy technology and embrace powerful next-generation solutions.

This Data Center Frontier series focused on data center efficiency and GaN technologies will also cover the following topics over the coming weeks:

  • Leaving Legacy Behind — Understanding GaN
  • Decrease OPEX using GaN
  • High Voltage GaN Cases
  • Leveraging GaN: How to Get Started

Download the full Data Center Frontier Special Report, “Optimizing Data Center Power Efficiency: How Forefront GaN Technologies Show Significant Benefits for Data Center Refreshes,” courtesy of  transphorm. 

And for further coverage, check out Data Center Frontier’s page dedicated to the GaN market that will provide the latest stats and info on the power conversion tool that has the potential to change the landscape of the modern data center.

About the Author

Bill Kleyman

Bill Kleyman is a veteran, enthusiastic technologist with experience in data center design, management and deployment. Bill is currently a freelance analyst, speaker, and author for some of our industry's leading publications.

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