Today's data centers are under unprecedented strain due to increased digitization and the emergence of power-intensive technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML). The power electronics industry needs an alternative to silicon power transistors to maintain a sustainable and profitable venture in light of increased demand. Instead of silicon, many are transitioning to GaN (gallium nitride) power semiconductors as the path forward.

Read on to learn five key reasons why now is the right time to transition your data center to GaN.

Reason #1: Improving profitability

One of the highest costs to operators of modern data centers is energy. Consider that the energy cost of a data center rack during its lifetime is now more than the capital cost.

At the same time, data centers are costly per square foot, meaning that it is often not economically feasible to scale a data center physically. Yet, the industry demands more computing and storage to keep up with increasing workload demands. Because of this, data centers are forced to fit more output power and computing into the same-sized data center rack. Unfortunately, this is far from ideal, as this increased density leads to reliability and performance challenges. As the computing demands on data centers increase, these issues intensify.

Instead, substituting the power electronics from silicon to GaN can be a valuable solution. GaN-based power electronics are significantly more efficient than silicon-based options, enabling power supply efficiencies above 97 percent, as opposed to 94 percent or lower otherwise—immediately, this improvement in efficiency results in decreased energy cost and hence a more profitable venture.

Beyond energy costs, GaN-based power systems in data centers gain profitability improvements from improved density. At the same power output, GaN-based power supplies are 2x-3x smaller than their silicon counterparts on average. With less space occupied by the power supply, data center racks can now make room for more computing and memory. The result is the ability to further scale a data center without physically adding square footage, leading to more performance and profitability.

Research suggests that a switch to GaN can increase profitability by $3M per year for every ten racks in the data center.

Reason #2: New standards, new technology

With an increased global push for sustainability, government bodies have begun setting higher efficiency and energy consumption standards for data centers.

A prime example is the European Union's Ecodesign Directive, which recently declared that data center racks' internal power supply units must meet specific efficiency and power factor requirements. These regulations are becoming increasingly stringent, with the efficiency and power factor requirements increased for 2023 and expected again in 2030. The EU's goal is to generate annual energy savings of approximately 9 TWh.

As further validation of this trend, the Open Compute Project (OCP) has also internalized these requirements for the future of its data centers. We will see data centers diligently pursuing these goals worldwide in the coming years.

But, it is not feasible to achieve the levels of efficiency that these regulations are imposing with silicon. GaN, with its superior efficiencies and performance, is a promising path forward to meeting government regulations and industry standards prerequisites.

Reason #3: It's economical and readily available

While GaN is gaining significant momentum in the data center industry, it is already ubiquitous and well-established in other industries.

GaN is currently a widely adopted technology outside the data center, finding applications in spaces such as audio (e.g., class-D audio amplifiers), electric vehicle powertrains, and chargers for consumer electronics. The brick charger used for many consumer products already widely leverages GaN.

Thanks to the widespread use of GaN in other industries, GaN has become extremely economical and readily available. For this reason, there is no longer an OpEx vs. CapEx tradeoff associated with GaN. Further, the widespread use of GaN has proven the technology reliable and feasible on large scales. This has critical implications for the data center and paves the way to switch to GaN to realize its benefits.

Reason #4: Manufacturers already use it

GaN is gaining traction in the data center industry, as manufacturers have already begun replacing silicon with GaN. For example, Tier-1s like xFusion, and key suppliers to Intel and Supermicro like SoluM use GaN transistors to make high-density, high-efficiency power supplies.

In a field as dynamic as computing, to stay at the forefront of the industry and keep up with customer demands, it is necessary to keep your data centers up to date with the latest technological innovations. Data centers that continue to use silicon-based power supplies risk losing their lead, losing their advantage, and will find themselves with a need to catch up.

As evidenced by several implementations already in field use, GaN is no longer just a concept for data centers. Instead, it is a compelling solution in the data center power electronics market. To keep up with the leading manufacturers that have made the transition, switching to GaN in the data center is a substantial move.

Reason #5: Sustainability

Sustainability is among the most important considerations for the future of data center design.

Today, data centers are contributing an increasing proportion to global energy consumption. Now more than ever, corporations have a responsibility to grow and build future technologies that are sustainable and reverse this trend. Unfortunately, the standard power usage effectiveness (PUE) metric used to quantify a data center's efficiency must show the whole picture. Specifically, this metric currently ignores the efficiency of the power supplies in servers and in racks, marking a significant "blind spot" for operators since less efficient power supplies mean burning more energy for the same amount of processing.

With GaN, you improve sustainability by creating power supplies and data centers that are more power efficient, achieving a 50 percent reduction in losses. Not only do you save power, but you generate less heat, meaning you need less power-hungry and exotic cooling systems to maintain proper temperatures. In this way, the energy savings afforded by GaN are compounded and even more impactful.

GaN makes data centers denser and smaller, requiring fewer raw materials to operate. Overall, studies have shown that for every ten racks in the data center, GaN can help reduce CO2 emissions by 100 metric tons per year.

Thanks to these five reasons and many others, the value and promise of GaN in the data center are increasingly apparent. The time is now for data centers to switch and realize the benefits of GaN.