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New technology could reduce power in data centers by 80 percent

Power Assure isn't shying away from taking on data center giants like HP, IBM, and APC. The tiny Santa Clara, Calif.-based company claims to slash power consumption, across all data centers, by 80 percent.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Power Assure was started a year ago by Donnie Foster and Clemens Pfeiffer, former Hewlett-Packard executives. For the last ten years, Pfeiffer--the CTO and brain behind Power Assure's patent pending Holistic Power Management technology--ran his own company, International SoftDevices, developing software for monitoring and restarting servers after they had failed.

Power Assure CTO Clemens Pfeiffer and CEO Donnie Foster Hanna Sistek

"We realized one could use this to automate the switching on and off of servers, and we saw a business opportunity," recalled Pfeiffer, who is CTO of the start-up based here.

Power Assure's Holistic Power Management collects power usage data every minute from servers, as well as shifts in utilization and unexpected shifts in Internet traffic from applications. When the Internet traffic increases, more servers will be dynamically switched on, and vice versa.

Most server companies don't publish power-consumption information for servers when they are turned on, running at idle, or at full load. As a result, users don't know how much power they are really using anywhere in the data center, Pfeiffer said.

Today, a server uses 60 to 90 percent of the energy needed for maximum performance while in idle mode, said Pfeiffer. In spite of this, most data centers simply keep the servers running, so as to be sure to meet peak needs when these might occur. That means big energy losses.

Power Assure loads up individual servers in the cloud to 70 to 80 percent of their capacity, and dynamically switches on and off the idle systems. Customers can themselves decide how much excess capacity they want to have. A minimal buffer could save 80 percent of the energy consumption, according to the company. A more comfortable 25 percent buffer could still save around 70 percent of energy. To kick on 200,000 servers only takes five minutes, Foster says.

Power Assure's software also measures how much energy the cooling system utilizes. This is roughly equal to the consumption of the servers. Holistic Power Management can also regulate the cooling according to the amount of servers used. The only problem today is that a majority of data centers built prior to the green awakening lack variable cooling equipment capability.

What is unique for Power Assures' platform is that it works across all data centers with near real-time monitoring and management of power, cooling and IT, without heavy policy writing or management, Foster claimed.

Power Assure's Holistic Power Management, on screen Hanna Sistek

Power Assure is all but alone in energy management. The energy bill has long troubled large players like IBM, VMWare, and Symantec. But Foster counters by pointing out that the solutions IBM develops are only applicable on IBM's own servers, which Scott Tease, manager for IBM's BladeCenter, confirmed. Power Assure's solution fits any system, Foster continued.

Other competitors are smaller companies like Cassatt, which recently launched a new update on its power saving software. The way Cassatt's system works is that customers themselves pre-set their own power-saving policies, which can be time-based (lower at night, for instance), event-based (how to respond to emergency situations), capacity-based (like network traffic) or demand-based. Customers can tailor their policies according to their different user groups.

"It gives our customers a broader variety of options to optimize how many servers are on and off," said Ken Oestreich, director of product management and marketing at Cassatt.

But Foster claims his Holistic Power Management is more user-friendly. "The customers have to implement Cassatt's technology themselves. Our customers only need to say what amount of buffer they want," he said.

Cassatt charges a one-time fee of $200 per server for its services. Power Assure asks for a monthly fee of one-third of the energy savings its clients make on reduced energy costs, which is the equivalent of roughly $9 per server and month.

Power Assure is still looking for venture capital funding, and needs to prove its technology on a larger scale. At the moment, it is doing initial trials at Facebook and Yahoo.

A problem Power Assure might face is that many companies hesitate to switch off their servers. "The cost-saving arithmetic is pretty appealing, but switching off servers is perceived as a risk. Otherwise this would be universal, but it's far from it at the moment," said analyst Chris Mines at Forrester Research.

But there are surely huge amounts of money and energy to be saved by improved datacenter utilization. A large server farm may typically spend $6 million yearly on electricity bills, according to Foster.

Related article: Data centers fail to become greener, studies say