Can cloud computing mean free heat for homes?

Researchers say homeowners could get free heat in exchange for hosting micro data centers -- a.k.a. data furnaces -- in their basements.

There's nothing like settling in for a long winter's night with a good book in your home that's warm and toasty, thanks to...cloud computing?

In a paper presented this year at the Usenix Workshop on Hot Topics in Cloud Computing, researchers from Microsoft and the University of Virginia detailed a possible scenario in which business's computer servers could be distributed into residences, where the heat they generate through their normal function could be captured and used to heat the structure.

This application, which the researchers dubbed the "data furnace," would solve a serious problem that all data centers face: what to do with the heat that servers generate. Most data centers need to install elaborate, expensive and energy-intensive cooling systems. So why not give away the heat for free, instead?

If this sounds ridiculous, consider that according to the New York Times Digital Domain column, some people are already heating their homes by using the heat generated by computers

Here's how they imagine this playing out: homes would host a number of computers (say, 120 servers) which would turn it into a "micro data center." For security, all the operations would be encrypted and sensors could tell the servers' owner if the cabinets holding the machines were tampered with. The type of computing that they'd be used for would have to be something that isn't needed in real-time and something that didn't need to be constantly processed. The owners would operate the servers remotely.

The homeowners, meanwhile, would place the servers in a basement, ideally, and pipe the heat the servers generate into existing ductwork.

During the summer, the servers would vent directly into the outside of the house, like a dryer does, and they wouldn't need to be shut down unless they reached they reached around 95 degrees. Since their use would be non-vital, this would be OK and they could, in most parts of the country, crank up again at night.

The economics are pretty compelling. For a data center to be constructed and operated, it costs about $16,000 each year for about 40 servers. Distributing servers into home and running them remotely would reduce the need for new data centers and cost the cloud computing company only $3,600 a year, the researchers determined.

And the houses wouldn't need to be conveniently located, necessarily. The NYT article quotes a data center efficiency expert who lives in the mountains in Oregon and currently heats his home using electric baseboards. By switching to servers as a heat source, he'd greatly lower his own costs while hosting servers that could be doing some social good, he said, such as analyzing massive amount of data for medical research.

In Europe, heat from data centers that are cooled through the use of water piped into the buildings have extended the piping out into nearby buildings, where it can be used for heat.

While the idea of distributing micro data centers around a city to dilute cloud computing's environmental costs and at the same time heat homes, it's more likely that these data furnaces would appear first in the basements of office buildings or apartment blocks.

[via The New York Times]

Image: Wikicommons

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com