Distributed Servers Could Become 'Data Furnaces'

We have been covering the use of datacenter waste heat to warm facilities from municipal buildings to swimming pools since 2009. That led to coverage of a 2011 Microsoft research idea for how individual servers might become 'data furnances'. That original post with excerpts from the researchers' publication is available below.

Two European companies have now brought the idea to market. One explains the concept with a video.

Cloud&Heat is a German company "The [company's] cloud servers are installed directly in the properties to be heated and connected to a virtual data centre via the Internet." The technology originated at the Dresden University of Technology. Cloud&Heat is raising capital via the new mechanism of crowdfunding.

Qarnot Computing is a French company. It offers its excess capacity during cold weather to academic projects so it can generate the required heat for customers.

(You may have to refresh your browser window to force the video to display to the right.)

Original 2011 Post

Microsoft researchers have proposed that "servers can be sent to homes and office buildings and used as a primary heat source. We call this approach the Data Furnace or DF. Data Furnaces have three advantages over traditional data centers: 1) a smaller carbon footprint 2) reduced total cost of ownership per server 3) closer proximity to the users." Data centers are already being used as heating sources in Europe, 'data furnaces' takes the concept to the distributed residential level.

Here are some excerpts from The Data Furnace: Heating Up with Cloud Computing:

From a manageability and physical security point of view, the easiest adopters of this idea are office buildings and apartment complexes. A mid-sized data center (e.g. hundreds of kilowatts) 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 to- ward sealed server containers that are replaced as a unit to save repair/replacement costs. As a thought provoking exercise, we push this vision to the extreme in this paper. We investigate the feasibility of Data Furances or DFs, which are micro-datacenters, on the order of 40 to 400 CPUs, that serve as the primary heat source for a single-family home.

DFs reduce the total cost of conventional datacenters in three main ways. First, much of the initial capital in- vestment to build the infrastructure for a datacenter is avoided, including real estate, construction costs, and the cost of new power distribution, networking equipment, and other facilities. A second and related benefit is that operating costs are reduced. For example, cooling cost is significant in centralized data centers due to the power density, but DFs have essentially no additional coolng or air circulation costs since the heat distribution system in the house already circulates air. Thus, DFs increase the power usage efficiencies (PUE) over conventional datacenters. Finally, the money to buy and operate a furnace for home heating is avoided, and can be used instead to offset the cost of servers: the cloud service provider can sell DFs at the price of a furnace, and charge household owners for home heating.

One disadvantage of DFs is that the retail price of electricity is usually higher in the residential areas by 10% to 50% than industrial areas. Another potential disadvantage is that the network bandwidth can cost more in homes if the home broadband link cannot satisfy the service and a high bandwidth link must be purchased. Finally, maintenance costs will increase because the machines will be geographically distributed.

To weigh these advantages and disadvantages, we perform a total cost of ownership (TCO) analysis for both DFs and conventional data centers.

The paper can be downloaded here.