With 'data furnaces,' warm your home with a server

Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Heating buildings is energy intensive.

Running computer servers that power the Internet is also energy intensive.

For the former, we spend money to get rid of the cool.

For the latter, we spend money to get rid of the heat.

In a world where everything is connected, can we close the loop?

A group of Microsoft researchers published a paper (.pdf) this week suggesting that servers be deployed to homes and office buildings and used as a primary heat source, instead of the traditional set up where equipment is installed to cool the servers at the same time that more equipment is used to warm the building in the cold seasons.

Calling the concept the "Data Furnace," the idea is to simplify all this.

    For a homeowner, that means instead of receiving a massive new HVAC system, you might instead receive a metal server cabinet that's installed among the ductwork and hot water pipes in your home.

    The idea behind the concept is simple: servers devour an incredible amount of energy (and money). When they're pooled together in datacenters, they're an incredible draw on the local grid.

    (U.S. EPA estimates put servers at 1.5 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption. Yes, that's right: servers move the needle on the world's largest energy dashboard. That's why datacenters are often located in cold climates.)

    But if the Internet is distributed -- especially in the age of "cloud computing," where more and more data lives on centralized computers off-site -- why can't its servers be, too?

    According to the paper, the temperature of the exhaust air from a computer server is about 104 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit (40 to 50 degrees Celsius), too cool to regenerate electricity efficiently but optimal for space heating, clothes drying and water heating.

    The benefits:

    • Reduced carbon footprint.
    • Reduced cost, in terms of ownership per server.
    • Closer server proximity to users.

    The researchers suggest that a "data furnace" be of manageable size -- 40 to 400 processors. As a result, datacenters as a whole would be able to cut down on real estate and, in the end, reduce per-server cost.

    There's a technical advantage, too: with servers distributed throughout the network, users will experience lower network latency, as the servers are geographically closer to them.

    What will continue to be remote, however, are the folks who will manage the servers.

    Too strange a proposition? The business model could be structured such that families receive free heat in exchange for basic services, such as replacing air filters or restarting them.

    The real wild card, of course, is security. Residences are far less secure than a datacenter, and while the researchers call for networked sensors to act as deterrents -- plus encrypted data, of course -- it's clear that large office buildings, apartment complexes and college campuses may be more optimal for the concept than, say, Grandma's house.

    This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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