Paul Wiener, VP Strategic Marketing, GaN Systems
Internet traffic has increased by nearly two billion new users in the past five years, creating challenging new demands on the overall Internet and cloud infrastructure.
At the same time, cloud operators have significantly ramped technology investments in sustainability, scalability, and profitability. At the center of these trends is the data center — the power-hungry foundation of the world’s Internet infrastructure.
Billions of smart consumer devices, robotic factories, industrial IoT, and the rise of autonomous vehicles have created significant growth in digital infrastructure and data centers. As a result, data centers are now the cornerstone of our economy, enabling the movement, storage, and analysis of the information that sits at the heart of our personal and business lives.
According to CloudScene data, of 110 countries with available information, as of January 2021, there were nearly 8,000 data centers globally. Among these countries, six house a majority of data centers: the United States (33 percent of total), the UK (5.7 percent), Germany (5.5 percent), China (5.2 percent), Canada (3.3 percent), and the Netherlands (3.4 percent).
Unfortunately, legacy silicon technologies can no longer keep pace to power the data center. However, by bringing next-generation gallium nitride (GaN) technology into the data center, we can create a future where data centers are more sustainable, performant, and profitable.
A Need for Change
Today, data centers are running more compute-intensive workloads than ever, necessitating faster speeds and more power. Data centers now account for roughly 2% of annual global power consumption. Without intervention, this number will only increase—and the impact on business and sustainability objectives will be further compromised.
Looking under the hood at today’s data centers, you’ll find that most power systems are still based on legacy silicon technologies. While silicon has been used throughout the history of the data center, the technology has met its limits in performance and efficiency. Resulting from inefficient silicon power distribution and conversion, studies show that roughly 20% of power in the data center is currently being wasted as heat. At the same time, almost 40% of all power consumed by the data center is used just to keep server racks cooled.
This model is not scalable, sustainable, or profitable. Today, industry leaders are replacing conventional silicon power electronics with GaN-based solutions, which are more efficient and sustainable and deliver higher performance.
GaN Sustainability in Power Electronics
One fundamental value proposition of GaN in the data center is sustainability, where GaN plays an important role in addressing energy inefficiencies in a data center’s power electronics.
Energy efficiency is top of mind for data center operators like AWS, Google, and Facebook – driven by government regulations and increasing public demand to reduce carbon emissions. Both governments and industry are undertaking initiatives to achieve greater energy efficiency.
Data centers that serve the apps used by millions of consumers are increasingly hungry for both energy and water. These centers will only need more in the years ahead. In the EU alone, by 2030, data centers are projected to account for 3.2 percent of electricity demand, an 18.5 percent jump from 2018, according to the European Commission. At the same time, Europe, North America, and other global regions are under pressure to reduce energy demand.
In the data center, some of the largest sources of power consumption and waste are high-power components such as power supplies, switches, and servers, traditionally based on silicon. For this reason, they are prime candidates for improvement via GaN technology.
Conventional, silicon-based power supplies operate in an efficiency range of around 70%. With GaN, however, improvements in device efficiency and switching speeds unlock power supplies with efficiencies in the 90% range. This kind of efficiency was previously unthinkable, but GaN has made it a reality and has brought huge sustainability implications with it.
Even further, the efficiencies of GaN help significantly decrease the energy consumption required to cool high-power server racks. In a conventional silicon system, cooling accounts for 30%-55% of total power consumption. With GaN’s improved efficiency over silicon, data centers can reduce thermal generation, and hence reduce the need for power-hungry cooling systems.
The environmental impact here cannot be understated, as leading studies show that for every ten racks in the data center, GaN can help reduce CO2 emissions by 100 metric tons per year. When designing for a greener planet, this is a huge step in the right direction.
GaN Increases Performance and Profits in the Data Center
On top of the sustainable impact of GaN, another important benefit of the technology is the huge increase in profitability it can provide to the data center.
Looking at power supply units (PSUs) in the data center, thermal considerations often limit the unit’s overall size. All else equal, as power supplies get physically smaller, they experience an increase in power density. This results in more significant thermal generation in a smaller area, leading to undesirable reliability and performance issues.
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Figure 2. World’s First 100W/in3 Data Center Power Supply
The key power supply metric in the industry shifting from dollars-per-watt to dollars-per-density, a metric where density is a measure of size and power of the power supply.
This metric is important to the overall server design. A half-sized power supply opens up the server for more DIMM storage, and demand here is anticipated to skyrocket. Dollars-per-density will ultimately influence server design and strategic data center decisions to become a dominant figure of merit.
Therefore, based on the dollars-per-density, compared to silicon, a GaN-based power supply is lower-cost and provides more opportunity in design as well as greater value. This is a one of the reasons why some of the largest server OEMs have made GaN transistors part of their power supply designs.
With the improved efficiency offered by GaN, we achieve power supplies with much greater power density than silicon. Specifically, replacing silicon-based PSUs with GaN can help shrink the size of the PSUs by 2x-3x. Importantly, the smaller PSU results in free space to fit more computing and memory in a single server. This can translate in a server density increase of up to 56%. Specifically, the introduction of GaN can transform a typical 30 server/10 power supply rack can be upgraded to a 34 server/6 power supply rack.
The result is a massive GaN in performance and revenue for the data center operator.
Research indicates that a switch to GaN can increase profitability by $3M per year for every ten racks in the data center. Savings for a tier one data center operator can include an energy bill that is $461 million lower, $1.1 billion lower CAPEX from postponing new construction, and $1.4 billion higher revenue from greater server density.
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Figure 3. Transforming the Data Center through GaN Power Transistors
GaN Has Big Implications
Data centers are the technological backbone of today’s world, and, for data center operators, energy efficiency, energy costs, and sustainability have become of the utmost importance. Addressing these concerns requires a revolution in the technology we use in the data center, and, here, GaN has big implications.
Using GaN, you not only save on energy efficiency, you are able to put more power in a smaller space, leaving more room in the data center server racks for compute and memory. For tier one data centers to become more sustainable, profitable, and performant, all without a large overhaul of the existing infrastructure, GaN is the solution.