Weekly Update

Will Software or Sensors Win in Data Center Efficiency?

Here’s a tale of three California-based startups, each with a different combination of software and wireless sensors to help data centers save energy. Redwood City’s Sentilla offers a low-cost, software-centric approach. Another, San Francisco’s Arch Rock, is sticking with higher-cost sensors and software aimed at data centers, commercial buildings and factories. The third, Folsom-based SynapSense, is taking a similar integrated software-hardware approach, but data centers are its sole focus.

Which company offers the winning combination? After reviewing all three, I’d say Synapsense, not based on comparing the three startups’ relative technological merits, but rather, on the measure of how quickly SynapSense has been adopted by the big boys in data center management. After all, it’s the IBMs, HPs, VMwares and Ciscos of the world that will open the markets to data center efficiency startups. Synapsense’s partnerships with HP and General Electric — for data center efficiency platforms — put the company in the lead on that measure.

Still, green data centers are a hot trend right now, and it’s worth exploring the startups’ offerings here.

Sentilla’s “virtual meter” system (patents pending) calculates per-server energy usage based on server utilization to cut wasted dollars without adding sensor costs. Since software is so much cheaper for a startup than manufacturing, sensors are unlikely to come back as part of the company’s catalog.

The problem with that approach, says Arch Rock VP of Product Management Malay Thacker, is that it doesn’t capitalize on delivering the more accurate data that only sensors can provide. The clearest example of this is the use of temperature, air flow and humidity data to fine-tune cooling systems that can make up more than half of data center power spend. Sentilla CTO and co-founder Joe Polastre conceded that his company’s system would need sensors to pull that kind of data, and noted the startup’s goal is to collect all that information into one platform.

Indeed, both Sentilla and Arch Rock talk about providing a central interface for both multiple sources of sensor data and multiple presentment platforms that data center operators will accept. But neither of them can claim the data center penetration that SynapSense can: Besides the latter’s GE and HP partnerships, it also claims big-name clients like Facebook, Stanford University and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. That matters, given the potential exits for data center efficiency startups. As Gartner’s Reynolds told me, “The goal is not to become dominant, but to be bought by someone who is.”

As for markets, Synapsense is completely focused on data centers; “We think you either have to go all in, or you won’t make it,” CEO Pete Van Deventer said. He believes data center operators want both sensors and software to come from a single source. “If you just provide the sensors, or you just provide the software, you’re going to fail,” he added. Synapsense covers both sensors and software, and beyond that, it adds a potentially disruptive automation capability as well. Sentilla’s Polastre said that most data center customers aren’t ready to give startups the chance to automate their mission-critical operations, but Van Deventer argues that they are.

As for how startup vs. startup competition will play out, the data center energy optimization market could be compared to the early stages of the now-cresting wave in virtualization, which is, of course, the biggest single avenue for data center efficiency today. Maybe that provides some insight into how the data center efficiency landscape will unfold. In any case, I’m curious to hear your thoughts — feel free to get in touch with me, and we’ll talk.

Question of the week

Will green data center startups get farther with wireless sensors or a software-centric approach in bringing down data center energy use?