Reliable overhead power distribution systems are critical to the efficient operation of data centres. Starline offers effective power distribution and monitoring solutions for such mission critical environments. Intelligent CIO talks to David Skeans, the company’s VP of International Sales, about how Starline provides its customers with essential reliability, flexibility, scalability and efficient design.
Can you tell me how data center requirements are changing and why?
Our business is uniquely focused in one specific area of data center application which is power distribution – essentially from the condition power provision, which is normally UPSs, to the cabinets where the servers are deployed. It’s a very specific subset of the power distribution of data centers. Data center power distribution is unique, relative to other types of power distribution, in that it requires a very high amount of reliability – probably the highest amount of reliability for any power distribution application with possibly the exception of nuclear power.
The other thing that makes it unique is that the loads are very dense. Computer servers take a lot of power and they take a lot of power in a small space. So that means that the power density per square foot in a data center is very high relative to other types of applications. So you have these two unique needs: reliable power and a high amount of power to a small location. So, we have remained focused on how to succeed in that very specific niche over the last 25/30 years. We have grown in the industry, from starting with mainframes to migration to servers.
The biggest change for us obviously is the adoption of flexible power methods or busbar methods for power distribution, but also more recently the changes have been coming around rapid deployment. Essentially our customer base now is interested in really pre-designing facilities and pre-packaging as much as they can of those facilities – pre-engineering them so that when the equipment arrives on site it’s ready for immediate installation. And they’d like to standardize their designs, globally, so that they can standardize their operation procedures and their methods of running the data centers.
So that’s what we’re engaged in – primarily working with global customers to develop global standards and global products, so that they can use them for all of their applications all around the world.
Why are track busbar systems quickly becoming the solution of choice in data centers?
I like the fact that you say ‘quickly’ because in my perspective it’s been a very slow adoption. It probably started in around 1995 and then the.com boom in 2000 helped it quite a bit.
But primarily it’s because it’s the method that makes the most sense when you want to control your design, you want to control quality and you want to have consistent reliability, with very little operating cost.
So what’s unique about busbar solutions relative to what we call more traditional wiring methods, which typically are conductors brought from a panel board to a server cabinet, is that it can be pre-packaged, pre-designed and it has the flexibility to allow you to attach load to it at any point.
Then it has the consistency in the design to basically allow anybody to install it. You don’t have to have a lot of electrical knowledge to install it, it’s more like a mechanical installation. Then it’s designed to be maintenance free. So operation is very simple as well – you put it in place and you don’t really have to attend to it very often.
It’s very similar in concept to track lighting. Track lighting is popular and convenient because you can move fixtures around where you need them. Track busbar has that same flexibility and ease of use, you can just simply attach load wherever you need it and you don’t have to pre-plan where your cables are going to be landing.
What are some of the main benefits of using busbar systems in data centers and how does this approach offer operational advantages?
There’s a commercial benefit because we can work directly with the facility owner. We eliminate a lot of the people that may come in between the user and the manufacturer by working directly with the end-users so commercially our offers are normally very attractive.
Then there’s the flexibility that allows you to basically buy a kit, and where the engineering can be as simple as how many rows of cabinets do you have and how many cabinets per row, that reduces the amount of effort that’s required for pre-planning and pre-engineering. And then when our product arrives because of the flexibility where you attach the power, you can simply just attach plug in units to power cabinets wherever you need them.
Then there’s scalability. What most of our customers do is build a facility, and then attempt to find customers to take up the lease space, or to take up the colocation space, that they have. As they find those customers, they can then add a portion of the electrical system that’s needed to complete the power path, so they don’t have to make the investment all on day one. They can scale their investment based on how sales are going.
How do these systems enable reliability, flexibility and safety and how do these factors contribute to effective power distribution in the data center?
Reliability is primarily dictated by manufacturing quality and design quality and then installation quality. The manufacturing quality is sustained to the highest international standards. We always test 100% of our systems. We have computer testing for all of our plug-in units.
Essentially, when you purchase a busbar system, you’re buying two different types of systems. You’re buying the busbar itself and then you’re buying what we call plug-in units or tap off units that are inserted in the busbar to connect to the load. So we use a lot of quality purchasing procedures to make sure that our products are built to the quality standards needed for high reliability.
Secondly there’s design quality and reliability. We’ve designed our products so essentially anyone can install it and it’s almost impossible to make a mistake when installing.
Joints are usually the area of concern when you’re doing an installation to make sure that each section of the busbar has joined properly. Our joints are designed in such a way that you can’t make them improperly, so you don’t have to worry about joint integrity as a portion of our installation so that helps a lot with the reliability.
Then, of course, we’re using the highest reliability components for circuit breakers and connectors and meters, and so forth. And then relative to safety again it’s about design quality, our products are designed to be safe in operation. Both UL and IEC have standards for safety and we’ve tested our products to make sure they are safe for operation.
From a technical perspective how does the make-up of the system ensure reliability and scalability?
One of the primary components is what type of materials you’re using, relative to reliability. The best material for use in conducting electricity is generally copper. That’s the most economical and has the highest sustainability so all of our products use copper conductors. And then, we use aluminium housings with the insulator materials to house the copper.
Those aluminium housings are very important structurally to make sure that the busbar maintains structural integrity as mechanical loads are added to it. But then also it provides longevity and there are no issues with painting, for instance, that you might use for steel or some of the polymer housings that are used that have less rigidity and so forth.
We use the highest quality materials to make sure that we have the highest reliability and safety.
Can you outline some of the environmental benefits of your products?
One of the biggest factors is when you use busbar essentially what you’re doing is you’re taking a whole lot of electrical wires and you’re compressing them into one system.
One particular measure might be the weight of the electrical material that you use to distribute power. The weight would be much lower with the busbar system as opposed to an individual conductor system because you have to add in all the insulation that’s used in each conductor and so forth.
Also the cross sectional area of that conductor system would be much higher than a busbar system. That’s important in data centers because, along with special power needs there’s also special cooling needs. Computers generate a lot of heat so there’s a big portion of the load that’s used for cooling off the servers.
If you have a small cross section area of power distribution that allows for more airflow the more efficient the cooling is going to be. So using busbar really enhances the cooling efficiency substantially because you have less of a blockage for the airflow.
What are the core principles to consider when selecting a top-quality busbar solution to serve long term on-going power needs?
The primary consideration when you’re selecting a vendor for any component particularly in data centers is reliability. This is very important. With our product we designed it with the understanding that it can never ever lose power.
The easiest way to gauge a manufacturers’ ability to provide a reliable product is based on its history. So, one good thing to do is make sure that the product that you’re buying has a history, typically five years of use so you have good references from reliable sources; other users who say ‘yes that’s a good product and we’ve had no problems with it and you should use it’. I think that’s the most important thing to do.
Then secondly, it’s important to have a good engineering review of your application. While it’s pretty simple to use it’s becoming a little bit more complicated because our product interacts with containment systems, for instance, so you have to make sure that your design has proper allowances for electrical and mechanical allowances to allow you to install the system and also utilize it properly.
So, establishing that your vendor has a good reliability history is most important and then making sure that you’re using top design resources available in your application.