Crackpot tech: DC power

The warm, humming bricks that convert AC from the wall to the DC used by electronics are finally drawing some much deserved attention — from datacenter engineers hoping to save money by wasting less energy. The waste must often be paid for twice: first to power equipment, then to run the air conditioner to remove the heat produced. One solution is to create a central power supply that distributes pure DC current to rack-mounted computers. But will cutting out converters catch on, or is the buzz surrounding DC to the datacenter destined to fizzle?

Researchers at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have built a prototype rack filled with computers that run directly off 380-volt DC. Bill Tschudi, principal investigator at the lab, says that the system uses 15 percent less power than do servers equipped with today's most efficient power supplies — and that there can be even greater savings when replacing the older models still in use in most enterprises. If the server room requires cooling, as it does everywhere except in northern regions in the winter, the savings can double, because the air-conditioning bill also can be cut by 15 percent.

Others are working on bringing additional DC savings to the enterprise. Nextek Power, for instance, is building a system that integrates the traditional power grid, rooftop solar panels, and computer hardware using DC power. Choosing this standard avoids the inefficiencies of converting the DC produced by the panels to AC, then back to DC when it reaches the computers.

"It's a big opportunity, because we've shown that there's big energy savings," Tschudi says of the prospects of DC. "And it's also got more reliability because there are fewer points of failure."

Cost savings? Reliability? The prospects for DC to the datacenter are looking up.

-- Peter Wayner

What do you think of DC Power's prospects for the enterprise?

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