Using Servers as Furnaces


by Tim Moran

"Honey, I'm a little chilly. Can you reboot the server please?"

Researchers from Microsoft and the University of Virginia don't think that line is a joke--not if you have a "Data Furnace" in your house. A paper titled, "The Data Furnace: Heating Up with Cloud Computing," argues that "servers can be sent to homes and office buildings and used as a primary heat source."

First, think of all the energy used to cool down server farms and data centers. Then think of all the energy used to heat houses and offices in the winter.

The researchers want to solve both problems at once, by distributing clusters of servers out of traditional data centers and into structures that require heating, especially offices and apartment buildings. As cloud computing, online services, and digital media distribution push more tasks to service providers, the increased demand on remote machines adds up to a heat-generation boom.

Says the report: "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."

How would it work in an office building or home? The writers say metal cabinets containing the servers could be shipped to the sites, then connected to the existing duct-work or hot water pipes. They estimate that, in an extremely cold climate, 110 motherboards could do the work of heating a home as well as a conventional furnace does. When not needed to heat the house during the warmer months, the servers would still be running, but the heat they generate would simply be vented outside, much the way it is done with a clothes dryer.

From a technical perspective, say the researchers, "DFs create new opportunities for both lower cost and improved quality of service, if cloud computing applications can exploit the differences in the cost structure and resource profile between Data Furnaces and conventional data centers."

They conclude that, as demand for computing grows, novel ways to expand capacity without increasing financial burden and energy costs must be found. The researchers believe this could be one of them, and that a similar approach could be used to heat water tanks, vegetable farms, and large campuses with central facilities.