Virtual Power Systems, a venture-backed startup in Milpitas, CA, started designing what it calls software-defined power four years ago and is now testing the system with corporate partners.

The concept is to perform real-time measurement of the combined output of a data center’s multiple power sources–mains, distribution units, uninterruptible supplies, and backup generators–while using software to activate rechargeable batteries when there is peak demand.

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VPS sells its technology in three parts–subscription software designed for x86 servers; the batteries; and a box the company calls “Intelligent Control of Energy,” which connects it all to your standard data center power sources. Virtual Power Systems is also trying to make its programming interface work with data center management systems from industry giants such as Hewlett-Packard and Intel, VPS cofounder and chairman Shankar Ramamurthy added.

The system will cost data center operators about $500-$1,000 per kilowatt annually based on power nodes, which is several times less expensive than the typical just-in-case approach, Ramamurthy said. In the traditional approach, data center owners install more power than is usually needed for ordinary component draw, so that their servers, storage, and switches aren’t caught gasping for electrons in the event of a major computing need, he explained.

Schneider Electric–known to data center throwbacks for its legacy APC brand–said it’s already enabled its power supply products to be VPS enabled. Essentially that means the VPS software can get more telemetry about a data center’s energy draw and and can therefore make better guesses about when to open the batteries, Ramamurthy explained. But the system still works for non-enabled power sources too, he emphasized.

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Virtual Power Systems also cited SAP’s Mikael Loefstrand, vice president for cloud architecture and engineering, as stating that the variable power concept “enables us to implement the fourth and final pillar in our overarching ‘software-defined everything’ data center strategy,” and that it would be used in an SAP infrastructure testing laboratory.

It’s unclear if that partnership is gaining traction. SAP declined to make Loefstrand available for an interview, declined to give a reason for doing so, his endorsement in a VPS announcement on a popular newswire service is missing from the otherwise identical announcement on Virtual Power Systems’ own site, and the project is not listed on the laboratory page. These issues are due to communication missteps and are being addressed, a VPS representative said.

Jack Vonich, president of Fremont, CA-based data center consultancy Instor Solutions, had not heard of Virtual Power Systems but said the biggest electrical issue he sees is due to poor planning.

“I think the biggest challenge internally for a company is power capacity planning. Unfortunately there’s not a whole lot of magic to it. It’s just companies need to understand the specific draw of the equipment in their data center,” Vonich said. For example, it’s a common mistake to see data center racks drawing unbalanced power from only two of the typical three-phase power inputs to the electrical grid, he noted.

“I don’t think IT users understand what the true power draw is of their devices,” Vonich continued. “If you build your data center based upon the nameplate rating than actual draw, you may overbuild it,” just as a driver may fill his car’s tires to the pressure rated on the sidewall instead of the actual needed amount. “Seventy to eighty percent of users don’t understand it,” he said.

“There’s still a lot of guesswork that goes into power management that shouldn’t be guesswork… If you could automatically load balance that would be huge,” Vonich said. “The only thing that reduces the use of power, realistically, is people to put a process in place. You can’t transmute the laws of physics.”