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operates sales offices throughout the world and manufacturing facilities on three continents. The Company focuses its efforts on four primary application areas: Home/Small Office; Business Networks; Data Centers
and Facilities; and Access Provider Networks."
Source : APC
Increasing Data Center Efficiency by Using Improved High Density Power Distribution
Density Power Distribution is also known as :
density power distribution,
data center power,
high density power distribution unit,
increasing data center efficiency,
enclosure power distribution,
power demands density,
high power density power distribution,
deliver high density power,
powerware enclosure power distribution,
increasing power demands ,
optimal power distribution.
A new approach to power distribution for high density server installations saves floor
space, simplifies power cabling, saves capital cost, reduces weight, and increases electrical
efficiency. This paper describes this distribution architecture and quantifies the benefits.
Note: The methods in this paper only apply in North America and are for problems that are
unique to North America
The standard power distribution system for large data centers in North America is a 277/480V three-phase
power system supplying distributed Power Distribution Units (PDUs) which convert the voltage to the 208V
and 120V single-phase branch circuits utilized by IT equipment. This arrangement is represented by the
one-line diagram of Figure 1.
High density server installations where racks can draw from 10 kW to 40 kW per rack place significant
strains on this standard power distribution system. This increased rack power density is causing:
- Multiple branch circuits per rack, with corresponding breakers and cabling
- PDUs to become up to 30% of the floor space
- PDUs to become up to 30% of the floor weight loading
- More PDUs installed per IT rack, driving up capital costs
However, these problems are unique to North America. In Europe and the rest of the world the power
distribution system is simpler and more efficient. This paper shows that it is practical to take the power
distribution system used in the rest of the world and apply it to North American data centers to reduce cost,
reduce weight, save floor space, and increase electrical efficiency.
In the past it was not practical to consider alternative higher voltage power distribution systems because a
significant fraction of IT equipment operated from 120V. However in the modern high density data center
virtually all rack-based equipment operates on 208V (or 230V outside North America). Even devices that can
run on 120V are also capable of operating on higher voltage.
Virtually all IT equipment manufactured today is designed for worldwide compatibility. This means it can
operate on the North American 120/208 volt system, the Japanese 100/200 volt system, and the 230 V
system used in the rest of the world.
Alternative Power Distribution for North America
The alternate power distribution system proposed and described in this paper is an adaptation of the power
distribution system used in the rest of the world. This arrangement is represented by the one-line diagram of
The differences between this diagram and the diagram of Figure 1 are subtle, and include:
- Three-phase branch circuit power distribution that is 230 V (line to neutral) instead of 208 V
(line to line)
- Elimination of the PDU transformers
- A transformer that is used to change 277/480 V to 230/400 V at the output of the UPS.
These items are explained in more detail in the following sections.
Three-phase branch power distribution ' 230V (line to neutral) instead of 208V (line to line)
While the proposed power distribution method sounds like a minor change, it actually creates a very large
impact on the power distribution system. First, the typical North American three-phase branch power
distribution is at 120/208 Volts, while the rest of the world uses 230/400 V. This is shown in Figure 3.
Servers draw their power from the 208 V high voltage (line to line) connection in North America, while they
draw their power from the 230 V low voltage (line to neutral) connection in the rest of the world. It is
important to recognize that when comparing the "line to neutral" voltages of both distribution methods, the
comparison should be between 120 V and 230 V and NOT between 208 V and 230 V. This "line to line" and
"line to neutral" difference becomes readily apparent when the power capacity for a for a three-phase branch
circuit is calculated. For example, assume 20 amp circuits are provided to the load in either case. The power
capacity for the 120 V "line to neutral" distribution method is calculated as (20 amps x 120 V x 3 = 7.2 kW),
while the capacity for the 230 V "line to neutral" distribution method is calculated as (20 amps x 230 V x 3 =
13.8 kW). Given the same circuit current rating, the 230 V distribution provides 92% more power than the
120 V distribution. This increases the power density capability per rack without adding extra circuit breakers
as would be the case with the 120/208 V distribution. These additional breakers present additional points of
failure resulting in decreased data center reliability.
Consider now the same comparison except this time assuming a fixed branch circuit power capacity. For
example, assume 10 kW is available to the load in either case. The power capacity for the 120 V "line to
neutral" distribution is calculated as (27.7 amps x 120 V x 3 = 10 kW), while the capacity for the 230 V "line
to neutral" distribution is calculated as (14.5 amps x 230 V x 3 = 10 kW). Given the same power, the 230 V /
400V distribution method provides the same power capacity with nearly half the current required by the 120
V / 208V distribution method. This significant difference in current requires the branch circuit wires in the
North American system to be 300% larger in terms of their size and weight.
Elimination of the PDU transformer
Even more important than the cost, size, and weight savings in wiring is the savings in transformers. The
PDU transformers can be eliminated. The PDU transformers are required in North American to change
the voltage from the UPS output of 277/480 down to the 120/208 utilization voltage. In the rest of the world,
the UPS output of 230V/400 V can be directly utilized by the IT loads without the need for an additional
In a North American data center with 30kW racks, approximately 20% of space that would be available for
racks is consumed by PDUs. In addition, the PDUs would make up more that 25% of the weight on the
raised floor. Note that these impacts were much lower in data centers of the past which operated at
approximately 2 kW per rack. Therefore, the benefit of using this new power distribution approach
increases dramatically as the rack power density increases.
Transformer changes UPS output from 277/480 to 230/400
An additional transformer is used to change the UPS output voltage from 277/480V to 230/400V in the
proposed new method. While it appears that this transformer replaces the PDU transformers, in fact it is
90% smaller and less expensive than the PDU transformers for the following reasons:
- It is wired as an autotransformer1, and is therefore less than 20% of the size and weight of a
standard transformer of the rated UPS capacity.
- It is sized to the UPS capacity, in contrast to the PDU transformers which as a group are
typically sized at 1.5 to 3 times the UPS capacity.
In addition, this transformer can be located outside of the data center server space, such as in a back room,
which further conserves valuable data center space.
The autotransformer described in this new power distribution approach for North America can be eliminated
in some cases, resulting in further savings. For new installations the facility could be directly wired for 400V
input from the utility company, and a 400V UPS can be used. If this is done than the auto transformer is not
needed. The disadvantage of this approach is that various related AC powered devices, such as pumps,
generators, and switchgear are not readily available in North America at a 400V rating. Therefore at this time
the preferred approach is to use the auto transformer as described in this paper.
The alternate power distribution system proposed and described in this paper can save a significant amount
of capital cost, space, and operating cost. A comparison of conventional power distribution design with the
alternative design was performed based on an actual customer's data center. Their data center is 2,175 ft2
and consists of 2 redundant modular UPSs at 600 kW each. A total of 104 racks range in density from 1.6 to
6.5 kW each. The results of this comparison are provided in Table 1.
Note the large savings in TCO and the large savings in space of the alternative approach of 56% and 32%
respectively. The 10 year TCO savings by distributing at 230 volts is $166,335 or 56% savings. Of the TCO
savings approximately 49% is due to material cost savings and 51% is due to energy cost savings.
There are some special cases where the alternative power distribution system is perceived to have
limitations. These cases and how the alternative distribution system addresses them are described here.
Occasional 120V loads
Data centers in North America encounter occasional 120 V loads, even in high density areas. These are
dealt with as follows:
- Many 120 V loads are actually 120/230 V rated. These ratings are always on the devices.
The vast majority of these devices have a detachable power cord. The solution is simply to
change the power cord to a universal IEC C-13 or C-19 power cord. In some cases it may be
necessary to change a switch setting on the device.
- In cases where it is not possible to avoid using 120 V for isolated device(s), a local rackmount
transformer can be used to step down 230 V to 120 V. These are available from APC
and other suppliers.
Isolation and grounding
The conventional North American power distribution system provides isolation of the neutral wire at each
power distribution unit. This characteristic has historically been considered desirable and is given various
names including: galvanic isolation, separately derived source, and regenerated neutral. Many of the claims
regarding the benefit of this arrangement are not based on science. In fact there is no data to suggest that
data centers in North America are more reliable than data centers outside of North America, most of which
operate according to principles outlined in this paper. This subject is discussed in more detail in APC White
Paper #8, "Inter-System Ground Noise: Causes and Effects" and APC White Paper #87, " Use of the Signal
Reference Grid in Data Centers".
The alternative system can be used alongside existing standard power distribution and is particularly well
suited for data center expansions focused on high density server applications.
The appropriate connectors for use with 230V circuits are IEC C13 and C19 types. This is the power cord
connector provided by most OEM server manufacturers with rack-mount servers and storage devices.
Therefore, most high density servers are already provided with the appropriate connector for use with a
230V system. Occasionally, a device may be provided with a power cord that uses a North American NEMA
style twist lock connector. These are dealt with as follows:
- If the power cord is the detachable type with a IEC C13 or C19 connector on the chassis,
then the cord should be replaced with a cord with IEC connectors at both ends. These are
available from virtually all IT OEMs, and they are available from suppliers such as APC. Note
that when substituting power cords it may be advisable to purchase a cord of shorter than
standard length in order to simplify power cabling in the rack.
- In the case where the cord is permanently attached to the IT device, if the plug is 20A or less
an adapter cable can be used.
- In the case where the connector is a three-phase connector, see the following section
The branch circuit breakers used in the system described in this paper operate at higher voltage than normal
branch circuits in North American data centers. Most circuit breakers that are currently used in North
American data centers are not rated for this voltage and cannot be used. Conversely, most European
circuit breakers panels are not certified by UL for use in North America. Recently, manufacturers have
introduced compact worldwide circuit breakers and circuit breaker panel boards that are rated and certified
for high voltage use in North America. Companies like APC offer complete data-center PDUs, remote power
panels, and rack power panels that are appropriately rated and certified for high voltage distribution in North
Three-phase IT loads
A very few IT loads are equipped with three-phase connectors. These include some Compaq blade servers,
large EMC storage units, and mainframe-style servers. The key thing to understand here is that none of
these devices actually require three-phase power. In fact all such devices actually use multiple power
supplies drawing single phase power. Furthermore, all of these devices have versions that are sold outside
North American and therefore are compatible with the alternative power distribution system. These devices
are dealt with as follows:
- For large deployments of devices with three-phase connectors, specify to the supplier that
the power input is to be wired for European voltage. This is often a simple internal jumper
- Determine if the device is field re-wirable for European voltage operation. Many large devices
- If it is impractical to change the device or convert it, then consider using standard distribution
to this device, or install a dedicated PDU to convert the voltage for this device.
The above information is provided to assist with implementation of the alternative power distribution system
in special cases. Note that in the vast majority of cases, no modifications of any kind are needed to the IT
equipment, the power cords, or the rack power distribution devices. Devices which are known to work
seamlessly in the alternative power system include: IBM blade servers, 1U servers, virtually all enterprise
rack mount servers, and virtually all rack mount SAN and NAS storage devices.
Comparison with DC distribution alternatives
From time to time DC power distribution, either at low voltage or high voltage, has been proposed as an
alternative to AC power distribution. The hypothetical benefits of a DC system are claimed to include
substantial increases in electrical efficiency. The system proposed in this paper achieves many of the same
benefits with much lower cost and complexity. Therefore, the high voltage AC distribution system is a
preferred strategy to improve data center efficiency. This subject is discussed in more detail in APC White
Paper #63, "AC vs DC for Data Centers and Network Rooms".
There are significant advantages to using a higher voltage power distribution system in high density data
centers in North America. Use of the international 230/400 V distribution system instead of the standard
120/208 system can save 56% in the lifetime cost of the distribution system, and save floor space and
weight loading. The benefits are most apparent for high density installations. Furthermore, the alternative
design can operate alongside conventional power distribution designs in existing data centers.
About the Author:
Neil Rasmussen is a founder and the Chief Technical Officer of American Power Conversion. At APC, Neil
directs the world's largest R&D budget devoted to power, cooling, and rack infrastructure for critical
networks, with principal product development centers in Massachusetts, Missouri, Denmark, Rhode Island,
Taiwan, and Ireland. Neil is currently leading the effort at APC to develop modular scalable data center
Prior to founding APC in 1981, Neil received his Bachelors and Masters degrees from MIT in electrical
engineering where he did his thesis on the analysis of a 200MW power supply for a Tokamak Fusion
reactor. From 1979 to 1981 he worked at MIT Lincoln Laboratories on flywheel energy storage systems and
solar electric power systems.