Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

Summary: By rethinking where cloud data centers are located, we could make our electricity consumption go farther by better using exhaust heat, suggest a new white paper.

SHARE:

Experts love holding up cloud computing infrastructure as an ideal model of green IT because of the architectural efficiencies it entails (at least in theory). Most of us equate cloud infrastructure with massive data centers, but a new paper from Microsoft Research and a computer scientist from the University of Virginia offers a contrarian point of view.

The paper, "The Data Furnace: Heating Up With Cloud Computing," argues that server architects that the researcher call "data furnaces" could offer a lower carbon footprint in certain scenarios, particularly home offices or office buildings. That is because they theorize that the servers could put out enough heat to become a primary heating system for these buildings, if connected into a building's existing heat distribution systems and duct work.

So, instead of worrying so much about hot data centers are, we would work harder to redirect their heat where it could actually be useful.

The researchers write:

"Computers can be placed directly into buildings to provide low latency cloud computing for its offices or residents, and the heat that is generated can be used to heat the building. This approach improves quality of service by moving storage and computation closer to the consumer, and simultaneously improves energy efficiency and reduces costs by reusing the electricity and electrical infrastructure that would normally be used for space heating alone."

The paper proposes replacing electric resistive heating elements with silicon heating elements. Essentially, the idea is to use the same electricity source to create heat AND to handle computation -- allowing the IT industry to grow computing capacity without necessarily increasing overall electricity consumption.

Think of it: A homeowner could agree to site servers in his or her utility room, offering it up for computing tasks such as scientific processing or Web crawling at certain periods of the day or during certain seasons. That server farm could help subsidize the heating bill, especially at night or during the winter months.

Among the technologies that the researchers believe make the "data furnace" approach possible are maturing systems management technologies, sensor networks that improve physical security, and reduced component pricing.

The most likely place for a data furnace? Office buildings or apartment complexes that are capable of housing midsize data centers (in the hundreds of kilowatts range) and that are seeking ways to drive better energy efficiency. The paper explores cost and management scenarios surrounding all manner of data furnaces (aka micro data centers) that include between 40 and 400 CPUS.

One potential downside of the whole idea is that residential electricity apparently is usually priced 10 percent to 50 percent higher than power distributed to industrial areas; plus the cost of appropriate broadband services might also be a sticking point that make certain options cost-prohibitive, according to the researchers.

In any event, the paper envisions three major types of data furnace configurations that could potentially arise:

Seasonal ones that use low-cost servers to perform computations mainly at night or during the winter, offering some heat subsidy to the host building

Neighborhood ones that could help improve computing services because of their geographic proximity to the users

Urban data furnaces that would operate year-around (this is the apartment building example); these configurations would make the most sense in colder weather, much like the seasonal ones

It is pretty clear that, geographically speaking, the idea of a data furnace makes sense really only in places you would find a traditional furnace. Still, I get the sense that the idea is more than hot air.

Topics: Hardware, CXO, Cloud, Data Centers, Microsoft, Servers, Storage, Virtualization

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

22 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • This idea has been around for at least 12 years

    It took the density of the cloud to pull it off. Good to see this kind of thinking. We're too wasteful.
    happyharry_z
    • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

      @happyharry_z - good for companies.

      Once regular schmoes adopt to the cloud like blind lemmings, they will find their heating bills skyrocketing. How do you pipe so little heat across so many miles before it dissipates... pesky physics...
      HypnoToad72
      • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

        @HypnoToad72

        Ooops - didn't read it huh?

        The concept is to put the computers in buildings and heat the building, not transfer heat over long distances.
        tonymcs@...
  • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

    I can't see this flying, how can you provide cloud services outside of a data centre and expect to have SLA's? A data centre is a controlled environment, multiple power feeds, multiple ISP feeds, compare this to the average house utility room, probably a couple of power sockets from an unclean power phase in the house. How do you provide sufficient bandwidth, routing, how many domestic broadband connections could cope or even have static IP addresses to ensure a consistent service. Lovely idea but totally impractical in the real world.
    duncan.mcdonald@...
  • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

    "It's getting a little chilly in here, you mind raising the CPU load on Rack 2?"

    Anyone else envision what the server room may look like with this kind of system? I am trying to picture our NOC, that has 4 large racks and 2 massive AC units, with lots of extra pipes running to the exhaust port fans of our racks. Seems like a huge mess in my mind.
    Bates_
    • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

      @Bates_ - it's a worthy idea, but since "costs" mean more than "doing things right", the moment they see profit margins go beyond a certain point they'll demand more corporate welfare, use their concept as an excuse, and simply pocket it for as long as they can.
      HypnoToad72
    • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

      @Bates_
      I can see some sort of Steampunk apparatus with huge heat collectors and little tech gnomes servicing the machine
      Jaytmoon
    • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

      @Bates_
      I've have a home based business and 6 years ago I installed both of our servers and all but one of our desktops (6) in the basement.
      After all this time I can tell you that the heat generated by those electronics has easily conteracted the electricity needed to run them.
      The only time I have to turn up the heat on the lower floor is when the temperature outside dips to below -20?? C. (I live in Montreal, Canada).
      I could easily see this concept working for appartment building, office towers and even private homes in colder climates by alternating the use from northern to southern hemisphere with the seasons (even Floridians could use the system to bring up their house temperature to their prefered 72?? in what they call winter... lol).
      TTPinc
  • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

    "I get the sense that the idea is more than hot air."

    While it is a cool (or hot :D) idea - I honestly do not think it will catch on. Sounds a bit impractical.
    CobraA1
  • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

    Who is going to pay the electric bill? If it would realistically lower my heat bill without an even higher increase in the electric, I would be interested. But at this point in time there are still too many unknowns.
    Rick_Kl
    • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

      @Rick_Kl - that depends. Do you live in a large office containing a data center?

      Thanks to distributed computing, lower heating costs in the winter are possible because my PC is on, doing rendering.

      Chilly nights really are not cool... :D

      But there are a lot of factors, and the application of all this...
      HypnoToad72
  • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

    This idea has been around since the early 1980's. When I attended college at RPI, the entire computing center building (a huge converted gothic chapel) was heated by an IBM 303X mainframe in the basement. A few years later when they upgraded to a more efficient 308X model, it was necessary to install a heating system.
    bob362
    • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

      @bobrankin

      I had seen a variant of this that far back, when I dabbled in broadcast. There were radio and tv stations where the studios and transmitters were located in the same building. There, they would pipe the waste heat from the transmitters back into the building during the winter. During the summertime, it would get dumped outside.
      fatman65536
  • Old concept

    It saves on my heating bill when I use my gear... and sometimes I need to open the window as well. My electric bill remains the same.
    HypnoToad72
  • "If you have to run heating in winter you don't have enough computers!"

    A very old saying...
    Uncle Stoat
    • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

      @Uncle Stoat

      +1
      subjectzero
  • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

    Most commercial office buildings of any size have their chillers running every day. They rarely generate heat. Building lighting and occupants (plus, I suppose, all the sundry office equipment) generate a surplus of heat. Hence the chillers running.

    However, if you can concentrate the heat and use it to feed an adsorption chiller or to warm domestic hot water...
    Bruce_B2
  • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

    http://cxi.di.gd

    http://cxi.di.gd

    http://cxi.di.gd

    http://cxi.di.gd
    kkchsieewh
  • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

    boy what a lie they can tell them very good stick the cloud where the sun don't shine hackers love the cloud has what i read and microsoft must be working with them to push the cloud so much THE CLOUD SUCKS
    ttx19
  • RE: Data center as furnace? Microsoft researchers explore idea

    So what do they plan on doing in the summer? A bake sale? Just kidding :P

    I actually take advantage of the winter to keep my PC cool rather than my house warm...maybe I should rethink my priorities?
    subjectzero