Data centers could take up residence to heat homes

Researchers consider the idea that data centers and cloud computing could heat our homes.

The hot news in the realm of data centers and cloud is the idea that one day these two could one day heat homes.

Now, the theory doesn’t surprise me. After all, data centers are already heating buildings. I just recently wrote about the University of Toledo, which is using microturbines as part of its new highly-efficient data center, and the beauty of these microturbines is that they can be part of a system for used to produce all of the data center’s required power, plus chilled water to cool all the servers, and the cooling and heating needs for buildings next door ( You can read about the microturbines in this blog; Syracuse University is using the microturbines too and actually cooling and heating a building near its data center). But the practical application of sourcing heat from data centers to heat homes, well that is more challenging.

But researchers with the University of Virginia and Microsoft Research see real possibilities (check out their paper, The Data Furnace: Heating Up with Cloud Computing). Their idea has caught the attention of many, including the New York Times, which covered it in this article.

Now, the six researchers aren’t suggesting we all move near data centers. Instead, the idea is that servers – which they refer to as data furnaces – could be placed inside homes and office buildings to generate heat. These data furnaces would be in metal cabinets that would be hooked up to the ductwork or hot water pipes already there. The researchers go on to say that, since the typical temperature of a server’s exhaust air is around 40-50°C (or 104°F to 122°F) it is perfect for heating purposes, including heating a home of office and heating water.

Where the idea gets interesting is that these data furnaces could be placed in the homes and buildings by companies who need the server power. Thus, your home could be housing parts of Amazon’s, or some other company’s, data center. And those companies could cut their costs per servers by reducing the costs of real estate and physical data centers. The researchers estimate that a conventional data center spends about $400 a year to run each server (and includes construction for a brick and mortar building, network equipment, cooling costs, and other equipment and operational costs that are not needed for the data furnaces).

Clearly, security and management would have to be addressed. The suggested scenarios include necessary assurances that the data furnaces do not affect normal building operations and as such must not require more than the existing power and network infrastructure of a normal residence or business; that each server has individual tamper proofing device such as networked sensors; encryption on all stored data and networked traffic and other security measures; and automated solutions for monitoring server and network health and diagnostics.

The researchers point out that data furnaces are more likely to be adopted – at least in the near-term – by office buildings and apartment complexes. The researchers write:

“A mid-sized data center (e.g., hundreds of killowatts) can be hosted inside the building and the heat it generates will be circulated to heat the building. Dedicated networking and physical security infrastructure can be built around it, and a dedicated operator can be hired to manage one or more of them. Their operation cost will be similar to operating other urban data centers, and can leverage the current trend toward sealed server containers that are replaced as a unit to save repair/replacement costs.”

But hey, if any company would like to test a data furnace at my house, send me a note. What about you? Would you like free heat and the chance to host a data center?

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