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HP once hurled robots and processor spays at customers, as its answers to cooling data centers. Today, it's only selling air conditioning sensors.

HP yesterday unveiled its new sensor system, hoping to cash in on growing concerns around data center energy consumption and costs. The company has moved to a cooling model that relies on the interactions between thousands of 1-wire temperature sensors, air conditioning units and software to make sure data centers operate at their optimal temperature. Such technology could save a large company more than $1m per data center every year, according to HP.

"This is not a cooling solution," said Paul Perez, a VP at HP, during a briefing at the company's Palo Alto headquarters. "This is a cooling management solution."

HP knows how to draw such fine marketing lines of demarcation after spending years in the cooling management game. In 2002, for example, HP announced "that it is working on a suite of technologies to address the growing problem of heat generation and energy use in increasingly powerful microprocessors and data centers." That suite included things such as a robot that roamed data centers searching for troublesome hot spots and Ronco-inspired coolant spray for coating processors.

The spray eluded us during Tuesday's data center tour, although we did spot the robot resting in between some broken down cardboard boxes.

HP claims that the new sensor idea is just the "evolution" of 2002's gadgetry.

It has moved to place a handful of 1-wire sensors on each server rack and has these report back to a shared server. That system then takes in the temperature data, cranks away on some fancy algorithms and tells the air conditioning units what they should do.

"It's all in the algorithms," said Chandrakant Patel, an HP Fellow.

HP pitches the sensor network and air conditioning system as a type of sensitive ecosystem. For example, little tweaks to a blower speed here and there can have dramatic effects throughout a data center. HP can make better use of such shifts by having all the cooling units in a data center work in concert rather than viewing them as individual systems meant to run at a constant speed and temperature.

HP's technology also deals with the unexpected. An operator could leave a box of new equipment over a vent by mistake or a system could fail, causing a dramatic rise in temperature. In such instances, the sensors tell the central server to kick up the cooling power to handle the extra load.

In total, HP claims a more than 30 per cent savings in energy costs by using its technology. That translates to about $600,000 in savings per year for a 10,000 sq. ft. data center that eats up up 2MW today. Operators of large, 35,000 sq. ft. data centers might enjoy close to $1.1m in savings.

HP, like IBM, Sun, Intel, AMD and others, has started making a bigger deal about data center cooling as customers grapple with rising energy costs and hotter systems.

For what it's worth, IDC pegs 2007 as the first year in which customers will spend more operating data centers than they do on new system purchases. Meanwhile, companies such as Google and Microsoft have started building large data centers in areas with lower energy costs, while other ISPs have turned to server makers with more power efficient hardware.

IBM has rolled out some data center cooling services to deal with these issues, while Sun has started selling White Trash data centers in shipping containers.

Sun's WTDCs address the space crunch faced by large customers in a more direct fashion that HP's sensor approach. Patel, however, noted that HP too has looked at using shipping containers.

HP plans to begin outfitting certain customers with the sensor networks early next year and hopes to have a more formal sales process by mid-2007. The company has yet to decide how it will price the cooling services or what brand it will use for the relevant software.

Clay Ryder, an analyst at the Sageza Group, said HP is on the right track, although few customers would be likely to grab the first iteration of the sensor technology.

"I think it is very early," he said. "Customers won't really embrace this technology until the sensors and software are integrated parts of the server package. That requires all the bits and pieces here to be properly in place."

Ryder expects server vendors to sell high-end rack boxes and blades with the sensors as options over the next couple of years.

Key to the success of such technology will be the backing of energy companies like PG&E, according to Ryder.

A PG&E executive just happened to make his way to the HP data center tour and said the company will help out customers with financial breaks if they use HP's technology.

There's more on HP's cooling kit here. ®

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