In a recent discussion with a group of infrastructure architects, power architecture, especially UPS engineering, was on the table as a topic. There was general agreement that UPS systems are a necessary evil, cumbersome and expensive beasts to put into a DC, and a lot of speculation on alternatives. There was general consensus that the goal was to develop a solution that would be more granular install and deploy and thus allow easier and ad-hoc decisions about which resources to protect, and agreement that battery technologies and current UPS architectures were not optimal for this kind of solution.

So what if someone were to suddenly expand battery technology R&D investment by a factor of maybe 100x of R&D and into battery technology,  expand high-capacity battery production by a giant factor, and drive prices down precipitously? That’s a tall order for today’s UPS industry, but it’s happening now courtesy of the auto industry and the anticipated wave of plug-in hybrid cars. While batteries for cars and batteries for computers certainly have their differences in terms of depth and frequency of charge/discharge cycles, packaging, lifespan, etc, there is little doubt that investments in dense and powerful automotive batteries and power management technology will bleed through into the data center. Throw in recent developments in high-charge capacitors (referred to in the media as “super capacitors”), which add the impedance match between the requirements for spike demands and a chemical battery’s dislike of sudden state changes, and you have all the foundational ingredients for major transformation in the way we think about supplying backup power to our data center components.

Imagine, if you will, a suitcase-size module that plugs into an intelligent rack or row PDU with a standardized set of functions that includes monitoring and power control, allowing operations management to make post deployment decisions about protecting slices of the infrastructure as they become associated (or disassociated) with more mission-critical requirements. These batteries will be smaller and lighter than today’s batteries and will be packaged in a standardized set of form factors. They will contain built-in charging and discharge regulation intelligence and will report their status to the management software.

 UPS and vendors, including Schneider Electric (which recently purchased APC), Eaton, and Emerson (which acquired competitor Liebert, along with the major system vendors, particularly HP and IBM, will still be able to compete on the basis of unified management and overall DC optimization, but the building blocks for solutions will become more granular, cheaper, and more standardized. Do we think the existing data center power system vendors are aware and watching this evolution? Absolutely, unless they are totally asleep at the wheel (and there is no sign of this). At the same time, we get the impression that the options are still fluid as the industry and key players are still trying to figure out the right formulas for co-opetition.

So, is anyone else titillated by this? Or do batteries and power distribution still fall short of exciting?