Data center usage has grown significantly over the past five years as connected solutions became more commonplace. The proliferation of high-performance computing, cloud-based business operations, 5G networks, fixed wireless access deployments, and the Industrial Internet-of-Things (IIoT) led demand to grow between 11.9% and 13% annually from 2018 to 2023 . As a result, U.S. data center market revenue hit over $263 billion in 2022, a significant leap from the previous year .
With demand unlikely to slow and with the significant costs that accompany building new facilities, many operators are seeking improvements in power density to help them keep pace with market demands. At the same time, mounting public and regulatory pressure is fueling operators’ efforts to reduce emissions and waste. As a result, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) serving the data center industry are working hard to reduce the footprints of their equipment while up-leveling capacities and improving efficiencies.
It’s a difficult task, though not unfamiliar. Achieving high power density and efficiency throughout a data center requires incremental power improvements across the board—from large power systems all the way down to board-mounted components. Regardless of where you look in the power chain, the challenge is similar: how can power density be increased while keeping costs down and waste low? One solution may arise by taking a different approach to board-mounted power (BMP), utilizing master-satellite power module configurations.
BALANCING THE BOARD FOR DENSITY AND EFFICIENCY
At the board level, load requirements of equipment can dictate elements of the overall board design, including power component size, voltage capability, layout, and spacing. Factors such as the distance between power components, the materials used in their production, and their proximity to a point of load (POL) all contribute to the efficiency of the power module. Less efficient systems shed more heat, have higher cooling needs, use more energy, and can decrease operating longevity—all of which may influence the design and efficiency of an end product.
Master-satellite DC-DC converter modules enable flexible configurations by using a “master” module with an integrated digital multiphase buck controller to control smaller “satellites.” This allows for boosted current capacities with higher power densities in single output configurations. It also enables the ability to power multiple components with varying power needs in smaller footprints than traditional POLs—ultimately, reducing the total power footprint on a board and allowing more space for other components. This makes master-satellite modules compelling options for the latest networking and data center applications, like high-performance application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs).
Master-satellite architectures can also provide added flexibility during the board design and build processes. For example, as a given build progresses and the demands of the end product come into focus, the power demands of the product may change. This could result in a need for changes to the overall board layout. By utilizing a master-satellite concept with common nested pinouts, however, board designers and power engineers can interchange modules as needed during the design process, giving them more control over their builds. Incremental adjustments can be made without the need to completely redesign a printed circuit board during the design, build, and testing processes. Using vendor-tested DC-DC converters can also help eliminate unknowns that can impact performance down the road.
Leveraging master-satellite DC-DC converters may also lead to reduced overall costs in the long run. Although modular builds like these may require a larger up-front investment compared to discrete options, the associated process and performance improvements they enable can add up. Modular components are validated by their manufacturers, reducing the need for extensive testing during equipment design phases. In turn, this can streamline prototype and test procedures for networking equipment manufacturers, reducing time to market and helping to ensure the efficiency and reliability their end products require. And when implemented at scale, the high efficiency and reliability offered with modular DC-DC converters, including master-satellite modules, can lead to significant cost savings.
In addition, the smaller footprints of satellite modules enable them to be placed closer to components and loads, potentially shortening copper traces and helping to mitigate energy losses. Fewer losses result in reduced cooling needs, compounding energy savings and supporting ongoing data center sustainability initiatives. With an estimated 40% of data center energy consumption going directly to cooling systems , any mitigation of heat loss, however small, could prove beneficial.
In 2020, data centers accounted for more of the world’s total energy consumption than some countries, and the trend is likely to continue . Under current models, by 2030, energy use in data center operations is expected to triple from its 2010 rate  (at which time it accounted for 1.1% of total consumption ). With environmental concerns and rising energy costs increasingly guiding consumer and business decisions, continued progress toward more efficient operations will be as critical to ongoing success in the industry as power density improvements—and master-satellite configurations can help move us toward both goals.
SMALL STEPS BECOME BIG LEAPS
In an industry that moves as fast as communications, being ahead of the curve is critical to ongoing innovation. Data centers now face a steep curve, with McKinsey estimating that, by 2030, U.S. demand for data centers will reach 35GW, more than double its 2022 level of 17GW . Failure to keep pace with rising processing and data storage needs could prove a significant barrier to progress in fields that rely on these services. The results of these efforts could have far-reaching effects—not just for operators looking to grow their businesses, but for ongoing progress in the fields of networking, computing, and more.
Given its potential to streamline builds, boost density, and reduce energy losses, the master-satellite approach to board-mounted power can provide a solid base on which OEMs can build more powerful data center equipment without increasing footprints. By looking at power density and efficiency at every level of operation, data centers can better optimize their infrastructure to meet their power needs today and in the future.
 Report: “Investing in the rising data center economy” from McKinsey & Company: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/technology-media-and-telecommunications/our-insights/investing-in-the-rising-data-center-economy
 “Data Center Market Size and Share Analysis by Infrastructure Type” from Prescient & Strategic Intelligence: https://www.psmarketresearch.com/market-analysis/data-center-market
 “Cooling Energy Consumption Investigation of Data Center IT Room with Vertical Placed Server” from ScienceDirect: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1876610217306331
 “Why do data centers use so much energy?” from DW: https://www.dw.com/en/data-centers-energy-consumption-steady-despite-big-growth-because-of-increasing-efficiency/a-60444548#:~:text=Data%20centers%20need%20electricity%20to,use%201%25%20of%20global%20electricity.
 “Data centers keep energy use steady despite big growth” from DW: https://www.dw.com/en/data-centers-energy-consumption-steady-despite-big-growth-because-of-increasing-efficiency/a-60444548#:~:text=The%20study%20expects%20consumption%20to,to%20offset%20growing%20electricity%20demand.
 “How Much Energy Do Data Centers Really Use?” from Energy Innovation Policy and Technology LLC: https://energyinnovation.org/2020/03/17/how-much-energy-do-data-centers-really-use/
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PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • JULY 2023 #396 – Get a PDF of the issueSponsor this Article
Vito Savino is the data center and wireline segment leader for ABB Power Conversion, where he works with data center and telecommunications customers to provide advanced solutions for their dynamic power challenges.