For Green Data Centers, Tech Firms Pick up Where LEED Left off

[qi:gigaom_icon_hardware] What do the growth of cloud-based services, online video and an ever-increasing appetite for digital media have in common? They all require power-hungry data centers — and lots of them. It’s a challenge that hasn’t escaped the IT industry; lately Microsoft (s msft) and Apple (s aapl) have made some notable hires that reflect the critical nature of energy-efficient data center operations. Whether laying the groundwork for Windows Azure or Apple’s rumored content delivery platform, there’s no shortage of companies willing to help lower the energy cost side of the equation, according to a GigaOM Pro report (subscription required) by KDA Consulting’s Katherine Austin released today.

In the report, titled “Green Data Center Design: Strategies & Players,” Austin details the options data center operators have at their disposal and the companies that are willing to lend a hand. More importantly, she lays out some of the pitfalls, one of which is the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification program. Who could possibly have a problem with a system that’s inspiring some of the most environmentally appealing architecture around? Corporations looking to squeeze the best power usage effectiveness out of their facility.

Bike racks, ample natural lighting and widespread recycling make for pleasing and sustainable environments for workers, but data centers are places where servers, power distribution and cooling equipment vastly outnumber people. “Only 10 [out of a possible 69] LEED points are applied to energy optimization,” says Austin, noting that LEED certification may not carry the same weight for a data center as it does an office tower teeming with employees.

Fortunately, a coalition that includes The Green Grid and the Uptime Institute, has submitted new standards to the U.S. Green Building Council specific to data center energy efficiency. Yet even as these standards wend their way toward approval, companies may find it tough to finance their new builds. “Banks aren’t lending,” says Austin. Commercial loan access has dried up for all but the most established players like Equinix, raising prices as supply trails demand for new data centers and adding more cost pressure to an already capital-intensive exercise.

Seems like a no-win situation, except for the Googles (s goog) of the world. That’s when technology steps in. IT giants and innovative startups alike are transforming the data center landscape, with the potential to turn existing and even modest facilities into green computing powerhouses. Whereas data centers were once frigid, warehouse-like repositories of computing equipment, companies like SynapSense are making sensors that let managers identify hotspots and reconfigure server racks for optimal cooling efficiency. This matters because virtualization, as a server consolidation strategy, requires physical servers to work harder and expend more heat. And, as Austin’s report points out, infrastructure costs more to run than servers, so any effort to maximize cooling efficiency can result in hefty savings. No surprise then that IBM (s ibm) and HP (s hpq) have taken an interest in the power and cooling management space.

For a closer look at the market forces and companies fueling the green data center revolution, read the rest of the GigaOM report here.