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The energy storage requirements for edge computing installations

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Steve Jennings, senior vice president of ZincFive, discusses the energy storage requirements for edge computing installations, and why nickel-zinc batteries could be the perfect solution. 

Trends in business and consumer services are pushing IT resources out beyond centralised facilities towards distributed architectures. And they are taking energy storage for battery backup to the edge with them.

For example, telecommunications companies are deploying high-speed 5G services that empower mobile gaming, on-demand entertainment and industrial IoT. These real-time applications require guaranteed processing bandwidth and response time in the field. To support them, wireless service providers are installing computing capabilities in facilities at the edge of their networks, close to their business and consumer users — even right at the base of a cell tower.

Similarly, after decades spent centralising servers in huge hyperscale facilities, data centre operators have refocused on building out offerings in edge data centres. By one estimate, global edge data centre market size is expected to double from 2020 to 2024. And they are popping up just about anywhere. An edge data centre may be implemented in the back room or closet of a retail store to maximise the use of IoT devices and AI to increase the operational efficiency.

The complexity of a distributed IT architecture makes it harder to avoid unwanted downtime. In a recent article, Lee Kirby, executive director of the Uptime Institute, said, “As we see the [edge] adoption rates go up, and the use of the applications and deployment of the Internet of Things with all of the devices that are out there, we’re taxing the entire matrix of the digital infrastructure.”

Distributed IT places more demands on backup power

When essential components of the IT infrastructure operate outside the central facility, they need their own energy storage system to provide battery backup in case of a power outage. Not only does this increase the number of energy storage systems in the overall architecture, but also the demands of battery backup in the field are more stringent.

First, the formats for some distributed IT facilities, such as the retail closet or shipping container, may be quite size constrained. Operators of these facilities need to use every last square foot for servers and storage to run their applications. Backup power has to use the smallest possible footprint.

Second, distributed facilities are more numerous and more dispersed geographically than central facilities. That makes it more challenging to provide regular maintenance, as well as emergency service if something goes wrong. Reliability is paramount for all systems, especially backup power. For compact installations like shipping containers, there is also less room available for environmental controls, so backup batteries need to perform reliably over a range of conditions.

Finally, distributed IT hardware operates closer to a company’s employees, customers and the general public. The energy storage systems need to be inherently safe even as they become more power dense. As these facilities proliferate, ensuring that backup battery technology is also environmentally friendly can make a difference for corporate sustainability efforts.

Power density serves smaller facilities

The move to a distributed IT architecture requires an evolution in backup batteries. While lead-acid batteries have served traditional IT locations for decades, alternatives such as nickel-zinc (NiZn) batteries provide superior trade-offs in size, reliability and safety to ensure successful operation of distributed IT facilities.

The first criterion is providing sufficient power in a small form factor. NiZn technology has twice the power density of lead-acid batteries, which means that it requires one half the footprint and one half the weight in any given application. Using smaller NiZn batteries opens up space in an IT installation for more revenue-enhancing servers and storage. The smaller footprint and weight suit a larger array of formats, from cabinet-based configurations to distributed power strategies like those advocated by the Open Compute Project.

Lower maintenance across more locations

As distributed IT facilities become more numerous, maintenance can become an expensive problem. A NiZn battery has an operational life as long as three lead-acid battery replacement cycles, reducing the number and cost of maintenance visits by two thirds.

Since distributed facilities may not be purpose-built for IT hardware, a wider operating temperature range is another important contributor to reliability and low maintenance. NiZn batteries have a wider operating temperature range than both lead-acid and lithium-ion chemistries. Moreover, UPS solutions with NiZn batteries have a lower BTU heat load, which further reduces cooling system requirements. This advantage not only enhances reliability, but it also helps reduce overall facility size.

In remote locations, power outages may be more frequent and backup batteries are cycled more often. After each outage, the operator will want to be sure the batteries are back to a fully charged state as soon as possible. NiZn technology can operate with rapid discharge and recharge cycles while maintaining thermal stability.

Greater safety and sustainability

Because distributed IT facilities may operate closer in proximity to workers and the general public, their backup batteries must be inherently safe. Here again, NiZn technology has some clear advantages over other options.

While lithium-ion batteries have similar operating characteristics as NiZn ones, they are not as inherently safe. Lithium-ion battery cells display a tendency for thermal runaway, so backup systems using this technology must employ a variety of fire protection layers. NiZn batteries do not exhibit thermal runaway, as proven through testing using the Underwriters Laboratories UL 9540A test method. These batteries are also non-flammable and fail-safe, making them easier and safer to handle. In fact, they are not subject to the travel restrictions placed on lead-acid and lithium-ion products — important for shipping and installation at remote facilities.

Finally, as backup batteries take their place in distributed IT facilities around the world, it’s important to note their impact on corporate sustainability efforts. NiZn chemistry is easier on the environment than the others. In a recent Climate Impact Report performed by Boundless Impact Research & Analysis, NiZn batteries ranked higher than lead-acid and lithium-ion chemistries in several criteria including avoided greenhouse gases (GHGs), carbon return on purchase and carbon payback time.

Keeping the distributed future up and running

A distributed IT architecture is a necessary evolutionary step for emerging services like IoT, 5G services and entertainment. Every part of that architecture must operate reliably, 24/7, to meet business and consumer expectations. Companies need battery backup they can rely on for years, as they scale up computing across markets and geographies. NiZn batteries have the best combination of power density, reliability, safety and sustainability to power that future.

Steve Jennings

Senior Vice President of ZincFive

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