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Software, Sensors, Partners Drive Greener Data Centers

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There are many tech-paved roads that lead to reduced energy use in data centers, from software-centric solutions to those that put sensors on every server and fan. But the paths to commercializing those technologies are, by comparison, relatively few — and that means that early partnerships with the incumbent giants in the field will be an important test for any one startup’s technological solution.

Over at GigaOm Pro (subs. req.), I take a look at three startups — Sentilla, Arch Rock, and SynapSense — with different approaches to data center energy efficiency, both in technology and market focus. Sentilla’s software-centric approach offers lower costs, while Arch Rock’s plan of installing wireless sensors and software controls in data centers, commercial and industrial buildings gives it potential reach. But it’s Folsom, Calif.-based Synapsense’s complete focus on data centers with its sensor-plus-software approach — and its presence in HP’s Environmental Edge data center platform and General Electric on data center monitoring — that have given it what appears to be an early lead.

There’s a lot of buzz around the market for helping data centers’ save energy, both on the IT and facility sides of the equation. U.S. data center power use is expected to double by 2015 to add up to $7.4 billion in annual power bills, the EPA says — and that could drive a fourfold increase in the green data center market to some $41.4 billion by 2015, Pike Research estimates.

Still, power bills only add up to 2 to 4 percent of a typical data center’s operating costs, notes Martin Reynolds, vice president and data center analyst at Gartner. In today’s economy, spending on efficiency improvements to chase such small potential returns is a tough sell, he said. In fact, the chief short-term market opportunity lies not in offering simple energy savings, but in allowing data centers to expand capacity once they’ve reached their limit on how much power they can draw from the grid.

That could lend an advantage to a lower-cost software-only solution like the one Redwood City, Calif.-based Sentilla offers. In fact, Sentilla has dropped wireless sensors to concentrate on software that estimates IT power draw based on usage, CTO and co-founder Joe Polastre told me last week. That means, first off, identifying underutilized servers and older, power-wasting servers, which waste up to $24.7 billion per year, according to a 2009 Uptime Institute report (pdf). Fellow startup Viridity Software is also pursuing a software-centric approach in data center efficiency.

But what about all the data you can’t get without sensors? San Francisco-based Arch Rock said it’s sticking with both wireless sensors and software for its data center offering, That’s critical to address the facility side of data center energy management — cooling systems can make up more than half a data center’s total power spend. Pike Research said the facility side will make up 46 percent of the green data center market by 2015, while energy-efficient IT equipment will grab 41 percent and monitoring and management will yield a relatively small 14 percent.

No doubt, covering all of those bases could give a startup’s technology a boost over those that would have to be mixed and matched with other technology. That’s where SynapSense CEO Pete Van Deventer claims an advantage. While Arch Rock is also targeting commercial and industrial buildings, SynapSense has chosen data centers as its sole focus, he said. Not only that, but Van Deventer says it takes responsibility for making sure the sensors, networking and software platform work as a complete package — “If you just provide the sensors, or you just provide the software, you’re going to fail,” he said.

No doubt SynapSense’s role with HP and General Electric will give it a chance to prove this point, as well as lay the groundwork for its recent decision to offer a potentially disruptive automation capability as well. Sentilla’s Polastre said that most data center customers aren’t ready yet to give startups the chance to automate their mission-critical operations, but Van Deventer said that customers are ready for it.

For more information on green data centers, read (subscription required):

Report: Green Data Center Design Strategies

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