Sentilla, one of the many startups with technology to help data centers measure their energy use, is making a push to become the go-to technology provider to help customers manage this issue for the long haul.

That’s the idea behind Monday’s launch of Sentilla 4.0, a software suite that promises to help customers plan their data center needs -- be they hosted on-site or based in the cloud -- on a host of variables including energy use, hardware and software costs and space and power constraints.

It’s a logical next step for Sentilla, one of a host of startups and IT giants with technology to optimize data center operational efficiency through a combination of sensor data and software analytics. Once you’ve gotten your existing data centers to run at high efficiency with those tools, the next step is to translate it into the kind of data CTOs need in order to decide how to spend limited IT budgets to build new ones.

“Think of it like ERP [enterprise resource planning] in the manufacturing space,” said Sentilla CTO Joe Polastre. “This is resource planning for the data center.”

     - Financial planning. Sentilla says its software can benchmark the cost of a company’s current data center operations, then predict the costs involved in virtualizing it or moving it to a private or public cloud infrastructure.

     - Infrastructure planning. Sentilla says it can evaluate potential hardware refresh plans and other infrastructure projects before they’re implemented, as well as figure out when an existing data center runs out of capacity.

     - Asset analysis. This predictive tool is aimed at identifying potential efficiency projects within data center operations, and then figuring out how those potential projects fit within a customer’s existing business and infrastructure plans.

These are the kinds of things that companies typically manage today as big consulting projects, spending months revising spreadsheets and rechecking variables, Polastre said. “Our perspective is, IT people are intelligent, well-paid people,” he said. “They probably shouldn’t spend their time messing around with spreadsheets.”

Sentilla was founded in 2003 as a wireless sensor networking startup aimed at energy efficiency in data centers and other power-using settings, and raised a $6 million Series A in 2006 and a $7.5 million Series B round in 2009 to back that business.

But in the past two years, it has moved its focus to software to help make sense of the flood of data coming from sensors built by others, as well as through analysis of server and IT equipment power use to get at data that sensors don’t reach.

To get there, it’s been working on integration with data center facility gear from the likes of Eaton, Emerson, APC and Schneider Electric, as well as with data center management systems from IBM, HP and BMC. Sentilla raised a $15 million Series C round in August led by the venture arm of Singapore telco SingTel Innov8, which now holds a 23-percent stake in the company.

Much of Sentilla’s recent work is aimed at tackling the virtualized and cloud computing environments, as well. In August it added cloud analytics to its software suite, and last month it announced production-environment interoperability with virtualization king VMware

Eventually, Sentilla would like to refine its analysis to yield some kind of “energy-per-click” metric that can compare energy use per application across in-house, virtual, hosted or cloud environments, though Polastre told me that this kind of functionality is still a ways out for it and its competitors.

Still, it’s an interesting view into how Sentilla’s approach to data center efficiency differs from that of many of its competitors. First of all, it’s a different tactic than reducing energy use on facility side of the data center -- the massive air conditioners, chillers, air handlers, variable speed fans and all the other gear that keeps hot servers cool.

Given that facility energy can make up about half of a typical data center’s energy spend, that’s a big fat target. Companies like Vigilent (formerly Federspiel Controls) and SynapSense are focusing on facility-side efficiency.

But attacking the IT side of the equation yields some interesting benefits beyond saving energy. Tracking down and eliminating unused or under-utilized servers by sniffing out the energy they’re wasting, for example, yields much greater savings in terms of reduced software licensing fees and other non-energy costs, Polastre noted.

These are the same kinds of metrics that companies need to take into account when looking at whether their virtualization efforts have led to a more- or less-efficient use of IT energy, or when they’re trying to weigh the costs and benefits of moving to a cloud infrastructure.

Power Assure is likely to be a competitor. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based startup has been making inroads into data centers with its technology to ramp server computing and power use up and down, both to save energy and more tightly manage data center operations. It raised $13.5 million in September, and in November added another $1 million in partnership with Virginia utility Dominion to test out using data centers as demand response resources -- shifting computing and power use to help keep the grid in balance.

Power Assure is also developing techniques to delve into IT energy usage on a per-server basis, including the launch of a proprietary metric to measure it.  The main difference between the two appears to be that Power Assure is aimed at helping data centers automate the relationship between energy use and IT operations, while Sentilla appears to be focused at delivering visibility, insight and planning.

Green IT remains a huge growth market, given the ever-escalating power bills for the IT sector, the utility incentives available for data center retrofits and the efforts of companies like Intel, Hewlett-Packard and IBM in delivering technology to help combat that energy waste. Indeed, the likes of HP, IBM, Oracle and Cisco are likely going to be the ultimate competition in the data center efficiency and analysis field -- or, perhaps, the ultimate buyers for startups that can prove that their approach meets the industry’s needs.