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Benefits of designing in the negative space

29 Dec 2015  | Karim Wassef

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Power-hungry computer and network processing components are getting smaller, yet packing more of them onto a board is raising system power demands and thus the space that power modules consume. While some power solutions offer incremental size reductions, constraints against substantially shrinking the size of power conversion modules create the ultimate "compute versus power" paradox. By designing in the negative space, power can be located in previously "unusable" space on printed circuit boards (PCBs) and even server cabinets, giving back precious space for increasing computing and networking capacity.

Take away to add more
The industry faces the challenge of putting ever-increasing processing capacity into existing or shrinking space. But that increasing compute capacity comes with increasing power demands, and providing that extra power could take up additional space. Design engineers need that precious real estate on PCBs, devices, and server cabinets for more computing and communications horsepower. In short, they need their power conversion suppliers to take something away so they can add more features and functions to their systems.

Some traditional power conversion solutions involve physically repackaging power supplies to make them more modular and compact. Another approach is stacking power modules on top of each other to make more room on the board.

These solutions work, but they're all based on an assumption that there's a fixed amount of PCB or server rack real estate. Under this assumption, the only solution is to squeeze more power out of smaller packages. This "in the box" thinking still means that power, no matter how small and powerful, takes up board or cabinet space; the same space designers need for more and more computing horsepower.

Instead of just making power components smaller, let's think outside the box and ask, "what if we gave back this board or cabinet space?" One approach is to look at what was previously unusable space—space restricted by a variety of constraints—and place the power conversion modules there instead.

These constraints—from the mechanical space required between components or the challenges of dissipating heat, to consolidating discreet power management features—limit our space for power. But they also create new challenges for putting power in previously unusable board or device space. It's what we call Designing in the Negative Space.

Combining functions and features to recover unusable space
One way to harness unused space is to consolidate power component functions or features into single packages. This consolidation helps eliminate the wasted space between components previously required for either mechanical or thermal management.

For example, let's say a PCB design calls for two separate 6-amp power supplies, each with its own independent voltage controls. Typically, thermal considerations require about 4mmsmm (mm) of space surrounding each side of a power unit module, or about 12 mm of wasted board space. Consolidation can recover that lost space.

One approach we employ at GE is a dual-output power unit module that provides the equivalent of the two 6-amp units in a single package, with two distinct and individual controls for each 6-amp power load (figure 1). In short, we combine two components into one, reducing the component size from 735 mm2 to just 550 mm2 and giving back 25 per cent of board real estate for computing horsepower.

Figure 1: Mechanically Constrained.

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