Why Salesforce Bought Coolan, a Data Center Optimization Startup
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff speaks during the 2014 DreamForce conference in San Francisco. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Why Salesforce Bought Coolan, a Data Center Optimization Startup

Deal gives cloud giant powerful infrastructure optimization platform and webscale-minded team

Salesforce made a surprising move Thursday, acquiring Coolan, a three-year-old Silicon Valley startup whose software uses Big Data analytics and machine learning to help companies make smarter data center management and hardware buying decisions.

In a blog post, Coolan’s co-founder, Amir Michael, who used to design servers for Google and later for Facebook, and who co-founded Facebook’s open source data center and hardware design initiative, the Open Compute Project, said Coolan would work to optimize Salesforce’s infrastructure.

So far, the deal appears to be mostly about Salesforce looking to improve the way it builds and manages its own data centers. The company’s core business is selling cloud-based business software tools, and it’s unlikely – although not impossible – that it will sell data center management services based on Coolan’s platform to others.

“Once the transaction has closed, the Coolan team will help Salesforce optimize its infrastructure as it scales to support customer growth around the world,” Michael wrote. “I will continue my work with the Open Compute Project to further its mission of making hardware open, efficient, and scalable.”

If it wasn’t clear already, the acquisition confirms once more that Salesforce’s announcement earlier this year that it would use Amazon Web Services to deploy its core products to select international markets did not mean Marc Benioff’s cloud software giant was thinking of getting rid of its own data centers, which it leases from data center providers.

Neither company has shared much detail about Salesforce’s plans for Coolan beyond Michael’s blog post. Reached by phone Thursday, Michael said he could not talk about the deal and was instructed by Salesforce to direct all inquiries to them, while a Salesforce spokesperson, responding to a request for comment, referred us back to his blog post.

Salesforce Rethinking Data Centers

Salesforce has recently been revamping its approach to data center infrastructure, seeking to adopt a strategy similar to that used by the likes of Google, Facebook, and several others. Their strategies rely among other things on custom, stripped down hardware, little variation between hardware SKUs that support different services, and lots of automation.

Both Coolan’s technology and its team, some of whom were deeply involved in building and running infrastructure for those web-scale data center operators, will be useful to Salesforce’s current infrastructure efforts.

Read more: Salesforce Latest Convert to the Web-Scale Data Center Way

Coolan’s Platform Lowers Data Center Costs

Salesforce likely sees Coolan’s software platform as a competitive advantage. The platform, which the startup has been providing to customers as a cloud-based service, helps companies save a lot of money in their data centers.

In one recent project for a customer, Coolan identified that power supplies in the customer’s servers were grossly overprovisioned, resulting in 300,000 kWh of data center energy waste per year. This customer, whose name Coolan did not reveal, had 1,600 servers. A company like Salesforce, which has global data center infrastructure that continues to scale, can get a lot more savings out of such improvements.

Read more: How Server Power Supplies are Wasting Your Money

Another example is identifying the best time to replace a server. There isn’t a magic number that works for every company, and total cost of ownership changes differently over time for different businesses. Being able to pinpoint when a multitude of factors – things like server cost, data center CAPEX and OPEX, cost of data center infrastructure, networking equipment, and cost data center racks – all line up in a way that makes keeping an old server more expensive than replacing it with a new one is the kind of thing Coolan is good at.

Read more: When is the Best Time to Retire a Server

Machine Learning in Data Center Management

To arrive at its conclusions, the platform analyzes operational data from the present customer’s data centers as well as historical operational data it has collected from past customers’ facilities. It stores all the data it collects on Amazon’s cloud, where much of its computing also takes place, Michael told Data Center Knowledge in a recent interview.

Coolan uses machine learning to help with everything, from identifying inefficiencies to predicting failure in server components, he said.

By applying machine learning to data center management, Coolan is taking a page out of Google’s playbook, although it’s unclear whether there are any similarities at all in the ways the two companies apply it.

Google has been using machine learning to optimize its data centers for some time now. Its latest effort to apply its Artificial Intelligence technology called DeepMind to improving data center energy efficiency has reportedly resulted in a 15 percent improvement in Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE).

Scaling Smart

Acquiring Coolan, Salesforce gets its hands on some sophisticated, cutting-edge data center management and optimization capabilities and a team of experts who are likely to have a lot of influence on the way the world’s biggest cloud CRM company builds out its infrastructure going forward.

Scale is crucial for today’s cloud providers, and scaling infrastructure in a smart way is everything, affecting both the company’s ability to serve its customers with high performance and minimal downtime and its ability to make a profit.

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