I've been blogging a lot about Green IT (Information Technology) for the one principle reason — 1.5 percent of all the available energy in the world goes to powering data centers and that number will double by 2010 and reach 4 percent of total global energy by 2011. Data centers (and the racks and racks of computer servers they contain) make the public Internet and a menagerie of private intranets function. Without them, modern society as we know it would collapse — no phones, no banking systems, no email, no national security. You get the idea.

But with increased demand, increased complexity and the advent of rich media (like high-resolution photo, audio and video) existing data servers are in many cases stretched to capacity, unable to cope with the demands of a rapidly complexifying IT universe. The technical term for this is "power constraint" and it is a growing problem — nearly 60 percent of the world's data centers are power constrained. The irony is that with the massive amount of computing power in a typical data center, no intelligence has ever been applied to the computers themselves to regulate how they use energy. It's not surprising then that data centers are horribly inefficient.

Sentilla Energy Manager - MNN.com - Karl BurkartThe goal of a newly launched Energy Manager system by Sentilla, is to put some intelligence into the way servers use energy. The Sentilla system works by "intercepting the plug" with very small microprocessors that then report back (wirelessly) to a central dashboard the real energy required for a particular server at any point in time. This gives the manager of a data center the information needed to identify a problem (like a broken fan) or divert power to other servers in need.

The company recently closed a $7.5 million venture capital round for its patent-pending energy management technology which includes both the plug units and the reporting system. There is a real business opportunity here, as explained by CEO Bob Davis:

"Sentilla offers businesses the power to evaluate and subsequently transform energy-draining data centers into more efficient and less costly operations. Already deployed in commercial and industrial facilities, Sentilla’s technology wirelessly calculates the amount of energy a given machine is utilizing so that managers have the knowledge they need to reduce consumption."
To learn more about the company, I interviewed co-founder and CTO Joe Polastre.

Karl: Tell us a little about how the company was formed.

Joe: Sentilla was founded in 2003 with two other co-founders as a spin-off from UC Berkeley. At Berkeley, we worked on bringing physical information to the Internet through the use of really small computers (about the size of a quarter). We got involved in all kinds of applications, from border security to tracking logistics packages to only watering plants on farms when they actually need water. We built software that runs on these computers and performs the data analysis, which was launched in October 2007. A number of customers started using it, and one in particular brought us into energy management. A customer wanted to more efficiently use energy in the manufacture of metals (aluminum, copper, gold, etc). They use more energy than France each year. But they didn't have information about what each smelter was doing.

Karl: How did this segue into data centers?

Joe: By getting information directly at the source where it was consumed, they started to make changes in production and save a few percent of electricity. Other customers came to us with similar problems, and they were all running large datacenters. So we applied Sentilla's software to data centers to understand exactly where energy is used, and that's where this product really came from. The software has been in the making for 5 years, and the energy management product had its birth about 18 months ago, leading up today's release.

Karl: Is the Sentilla manager basically like a super smart power strip?

Joe: No, not really. The power strip is a tool, but the Sentilla Energy Manager is a software decision framework. It takes the energy information and provides recommendations on what you can do to reduce your energy usage, tracks your changes, and ensures that the trend is in the reduction of energy use (and cost). Its the combination of smarts at the server level (inside the power strip) and smarts at the application level (as part of a webpage).

Karl: OK, so the power strip does the reporting and then all that data is reported so some sort of web-based dashboard? That's cool. Is any of the power regulation then automated? Or does it need a human body at one end to make decisions based on the data?

Joe:  Exactly. The smarts in the power strip can also detect changes and let you know. In our early adopters, Sentilla could identify exactly when a server is in use, when storage disks are getting old, when fans fail, and when everything is idle purely based on the energy information analyzed at the source. With that, the server then looks at the larger picture to figure out how you could run the data center more efficiently. In this first release of the Sentilla Energy Manager for Data Centers, a person needs to make the changes recommended. But going forward, Sentilla is partnering with other IT companies to integrate their services into the Sentilla Energy Manager, so that load could be balanced, power regulated, etc. Some of the motivation was that I don't even know where my electricity is used at home. PG&E gives rebates if you reduce your energy use, but I didn't know where to start — the dryer, dishwasher, TV? So with Sentilla's solution, I can see exactly where the use (and waste) is, and start to manage the resources more effectively due to the finer granularity.

Karl: Wow, that's amazing — embedded computers to help computers run more efficiently. It reminds me of the work of embedded sensors at CENS. I was just over there talking to those guys about a carbon sensing program.

Joe: Yes, Deborah Estrin. I worked with her when I was a graduate student. (I was also at CENS about a week and half ago). Yes, in a way, small computers helping big computers be more efficient.

Karl: So you see your first wave of adoption at the level of large server farms, but that perhaps this same technology might be able to be used in homes and offices for all sorts of devices?

Joe: That's right. And not just large server farms, but even small ones too. Small changes can make big differences, so it could apply to all the server rooms in bank branches across the country as well as global headquarters with thousands of servers. At Sentilla, the data center is a place where there's a huge demand for energy savings right now (~1.5 percent of the U.S. electricity is used by data centers, growing to 4 percent by 2011). We expect to expand this technology to other markets, and certainly my mom would love to use this in her home, too! The software from Sentilla is the same with customized analysis for each market. So those big metals manufacturers are using the same base software as the data centers, with analysis customized to their operations.

Karl: Just how much do you think a company can save by implementing a Sentilla system? Other Green IT solutions like Power Assure have savings predictions with a pretty wide range — from 33 percent to 80 percent!

Joe: We're still collecting the information from our early adopter customers, so it's a bit early to say exactly how much would be saved. Anecdotal evidence shows that identifying and turning off idle servers for just a couple of percent of the time can save about $75/year (per server per year). Replacing equipment has even bigger ramifications, and most people forget about storage which equals or often exceeds the number of servers.

Karl: Good point. You could theoretically help customers reduce the SIZE of their servers not to mention cooling, etc.

Joe:  Sentilla's business case is really focused around the fact that you can't manage what you can't measure. No other solution is actually measuring the real consumed power and corresponding efficiency. As we integrate with more and more system integrators and service provides (certainly Power Aware could provide some of their services based on analysis from Sentilla), we're integrating more savings techniques.

More than 60 percent of data centers are (now) power constrained — meaning, they have run out of power. The challenge in this scenario is to identify the efficiencies to do more using the same power consumption. We've opened an office in London, and found that the problem is even bigger there — data centers in the central ring of London can't get any more power from the utilities, so there's a real need to increase efficiency and productivity. Yes, and the power constraints are forcing customers to look at reducing the size of their data center too.

Karl: This certainly seems to be a good time for your business, as you are providing a direct value to the customer. In a certain sense, power management is no longer a "nice to have" — it is a matter of life or death.

Joe: It is, and with new regulations for carbon emissions, companies are now responsible for tracking use. 

Karl:. So you are really selling "energy intelligence" that the company can then use to reduce its own costs. It strikes me that with a system like this, you could carefully monitor the energy use of a home as well and report it to a central website. I wonder if anyone has ever thought of then using this to establish a residential carbon credit. So that essentially the energy customer can "own" their carbon credits if they outperform a baseline standard.

Joe: Absolutely, and I would love to see every home also use the Sentilla Energy Manager. The trick is to get it to consumers at a cost they can afford, or through incentives (government, utility, etc). Even better is if every appliance shipped with energy analysis software and communication to the Internet built-in. Sentilla has two configurations; one looks like a wall-wart, where you connect your equipment to one side and you connect the other side to your outlet. This can certainly be used in a wide variety of cases — homes, office buildings, data centers, even for motors in industrial facilities. The second configuration looks like a power strip, where it can analyze each outlet individually, more useful for data centers (or, perhaps, your entertainment center). Pricing starts at $250/port (or outlet), and declines with volume.

Karl: OK, one last question. Where did the name Sentilla come from?

Joe:. Sentilla comes from the word "scintilla", which means a spark that sets off a series of other sparks (or events). We thought it was a good metaphor for taking primitive physical-world data (like temperature, humidity, electricity usage, etc) and turning it into actionable profiles that people can understand and do something about.

Micro computers to reign in IT energy waste
Karl interviews Sentilla CTO about unleashing the power of the chip to measure and control energy costs at the plug.