Battery monitoring service prevents outages, extends battery life

The latest backup battery monitoring services can prevent outages and extend battery life. Plus, they take power monitoring off IT's task list.

Backup batteries and generators are hardly a hot topic -- until they fail.

That's when companies take a keen interest in data center power backup. They question why backup power didn't kick on when it should have, and measure how much revenue was lost per minute of downtime. And if they are wise, they invest in ways to prevent downtime from happening again.

At least, that's what backup battery monitoring service providers hope they'll do. It's one way that customers end up at Canara Inc., a battery, an uninterruptable power supply (UPS) and monitoring services provider based in San Rafael, Calif., that formerly was called IntelliBatt.

They are doing this for data center operators who hate batteries.
Sam Jaffe, Senior Research Analyst, Navigant Research

"Some [of our customers] have had to pay damages for outages or have multi-tenant data centers that have [service-level agreements] they need to live up to," said Tom Barton, Canara's CEO and former CEO of Rackable Systems Inc. Barton joined the company last year and hopes to turn it into another Rackable story (minus the part where he resigns due to a disagreement with the board).

One of Canara's customers, Cologix Inc., a colocation provider based in Denver, owns 12 data centers in various locations and supports over 550 customers. It uses Canara's battery monitoring software and services for all its critical batteries, said Matthew Spencer, Cologix CTO.

Cologix has grown by acquisition, and many of the facilities it bought didn't monitor batteries at all -- a risk not worth taking since even brand-new backup battery units may not work, Spencer said.

That could have been a problem at its Montreal facility had it not performed battery maintenance just weeks before Hurricane Sandy in October. It found that one of its new batteries was a dud and switched it out, Spencer said.

During Hurricane Sandy, none of the many data centers supported by Canara lost internal power, according to the company. Some of its many large enterprise customers include Boeing, Digital Realty Trust, Charles Schwab, Equinix, FedEx, Fidelity Investments, Savvis and Wal-Mart.

"It's all about making sure that this stuff works when it needs to -- making sure ahead of time that the batteries can support a load that they may be tasked with," Canara's Barton said.

Extending battery life with monitoring

Extending the useful life of backup batteries, which last only a few years and can cost about $250 each, may be more valuable than preventing outages, especially for massive data centers with thousands of them, according to Sam Jaffe, senior research analyst at Navigant Research based in Boulder, Colo.

"It's a dark art to figure out how to extend the life from three to five years, and that is worth the investment in monitoring," Jaffe said.

Cologix uses Canara's predictive analysis and monitoring service to extend the life expectancy of its backup batteries, with good results.

"We got religious around predictive analysis," Spencer said.

The idea of monitoring battery health to lengthen battery life appeals to data center managers such as Chris McLean, PE Director of Design for the Markley Group, a Boston-based hosting provider that performs backup power monitoring manually. But software that monitors battery health is more interesting to McLean than failure protection because preventing premature replacement can save money and ultimately help the environment by reducing cumulative battery waste, he said.

An investment in backup battery monitoring services from Canara starts at $16 per battery, per year, for small installations. The price per battery decreases as the size of the deployment increases.

"It isn't a frill expense -- it is economical," Jaffe said. "They are doing this for data center operators who hate batteries. They want to take that task off their hands, and are happy to pay someone to do it for them."

The battery monitoring software measures temperature, AC ripple current, voltage and other data points that are analyzed by Canara's battery experts. The data is used to report trends and to help customers maximize battery life.

There are a number of other power supply vendors that offer monitoring software. For example, in April, Schneider Electric delivered an updated data center infrastructure management suite, StruxureWare for Data Centers v2.0, which includes a feature that data center managers can use for power monitoring, analysis and power quality.

That product keeps monitoring in the hands of IT, while Canara's monitoring service takes battery monitoring completely off of IT's task list.

"[Canara] sends us reports to look at, but they have battery specialists who know everything there is to know about how batteries behave," Spencer said. "Those experts look at the trends and can tell us how long the batteries will last."

Branch circuit monitoring

Canara's latest service, Branch Circuit Monitoring, goes deeper into the data center and monitors the individual circuits located in a PDU or circuit panel. This allows for load-based cost allocation and improved capacity planning.

"It allows us to monitor our customers' utilization of the circuit at the panel level," said Cologix's Spencer, who tested the Branch Circuit Monitoring technology. "If we want to keep a customer amp[erage] at a certain level, this allows us to monitor that … and lets us know if the customer needs an additional circuit."

The company also offers cloud-based reporting, monitoring and management now to allow data center operators to view site-specific, regional and executive reports. The reports include data collected on UPS, batteries, power distribution, temperatures and more.

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