Neil Rasmussen founded American Power Conversion in 1981, after earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT. The company got its start in solar electric power before becoming a leader in the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) market in the mid-’80s. APC was recently acquired by Schneider Electric SA and has combined operations with Schneider’s MGE UPS Systems subsidiary. Rasmussen is senior vice president and chief technology officer at the new company, called APC-MGE. He talks about the road so far and what’s next.
Q: The Back-UPS was APC’s breakout product. What made it successful? A: We spent a year and a half in the lab making the world’s highest-performance small UPS. We took every product that was in the market and took the best of every feature and every performance spec and beat it. It took us a year to get it out. And we sold 30 of those - total.
Then we took a whole different approach: forget the specs. What would the minimum product be that would be effective at doing this job? And that product was called the Back-UPS.
That product was designed over a weekend. The first plastic bezel on that product was made by a company that made dog food bowls. This was the most complicated thing they ever made. That’s how cheap we went.
We changed our whole design philosophy after that: don’t ask [customers] what they want; ask them what they’re trying to do, and learn from that. Once we got that model going, we just kept rolling over everybody.
Q: How does APC fit into the big picture with Schneider? A: They’re really gearing up on this whole energy-efficiency avenue, the intelligent design of buildings, and they feel that datacentres are a very important part of that story. They felt that it was a whole datacentre story and not just a UPS story, and APC was going the whole datacentre route and not the UPS route.
Q: You have a passion about modularised, standardised datacentres, right down to how the electrical panels are set up. Those standards still aren’t here. Who will develop them? And when? A: It’s not just the equipment. It’s the process of designing a datacentre. We have to standardise that process because ultimately that process develops the specification for what you want.
There’s a huge amount of mistakes made in that process. They’re very costly. That’s why we end up with all of this waste in datacentres. People made a lot of mistakes because their process was poor. How do you specify density? How do you specify efficiency? How do you have a rational discussion about a growth plan today? Most people throw their hands up and say, “We don’t know.” It can’t be like that. If you’re building something, you’d better have a plan and understand what it means and what its consequences are. Those kinds of things we’re trying to standardise.
Q: Aren’t there standards bodies working on this? A: In the case of efficiency, sure. You have the DOE weighing in and the Green Grid. In other areas, our view is we’re building our own system with our own Lego blocks, and we’re going to open that up at the point where other people can make Lego blocks that fit onto our system. But we’re not going to sit back and wait for the industry to come up with a standard Lego block. We can’t sit around and wait for committees to work on it for three years.
Q: Why can’t you wait for standards to emerge? A: Look at hot aisle/cold aisle layout in datacentres: an obvious, well-known technology put out 10 years ago. Every good design firm knows how to do it. But the first standard from [the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers that included] hot aisle/cold aisle came out a year ago. Ten years ago, everyone knew how to do it. To get a standard out took another nine years. We can’t wait for that.
Q: You’re proposing that US datacentres move to European voltage standards, and you’re integrating that feature into your product line. Why would they do that? A: It’s a big efficiency pickup, and it frees up space. Take a megawatt datacentre and look at the ROI on that. If I could get rid of the [power distribution units], I could pick up six percent of the power capacity of that data centre. That’s six percent more IT equipment I can put in there. That’s a material amount. That changes the ROI of the datacentre.
Q: What do you feel most passionately about? A: I am passionate about trying to improve the world. You can imagine that after the sale of this company, I don’t need a job. The only reason I’m here is that I’m just so excited about everything we’ve built so far, and all of a sudden, we have a huge opportunity to save a lot of energy, improve the planet - and we’re leading it. It’s just a great time to be in the industry.
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