Will Your Next Furnace Be A Server Farm?

By Veronique Greenwood | July 26, 2011 1:28 pm


What’s the News: Computers are hot. Too hot, really, for their own good—not only can laptops burn users’ thighs, but big clusters of servers require constant air conditioning, leading cloud-computing companies to consider situating them in places like Iceland to save on costs.

On the other hand, for part of the year in a good chunk of the globe, humans are cold. Analysts at Microsoft Research wondered whether they couldn’t somehow make these two things match up.

The Concept:

  • Server farms don’t produce enough heat, unfortunately, for it to be efficiently recycled into electricity. But their exhaust falls into a temperature range—104-122 degrees F—that’s perfect for human needs like heating.
  • In a new paper, the Microsoft team suggest that by swapping a building’s furnace for a box of servers belonging to a cloud-computing firm, owners of apartment complexes, offices, campuses, and homes could circulate that heat using the existing duct system, saving money on equipment and possibly receiving free upgrades to faster internet service, since the servers will need the connection to be part of the cloud.
  • By putting servers in buildings, cloud-computing companies would save the money and energy used to cool the servers and could, by providing the servers at a price much lower than that of a furnace and then charging a monthly rate for heating, get a new source of revenue.

The Details:

  • As an exercise, the team looked into the feasibility of putting such “data furnaces” into private homes, including when and where they could be used and whether they would be cost efficient.
  • Obviously, local weather patterns would determine how much of the year such a system would be useful (the servers would probably have to be turned off part of the year, since cooling them during the summer would not be part of the plan). Using climate data, the team outlined regions where the climate seemed amenable, and also incorporated the cost of electricity for running the servers and the potential upgrades in network infrastructure required for linking them to the cloud. Check out their table showing estimated cost savings here.
  • At the end of their analysis, they conclude that within certain constraints, both homeowners and cloud-computing companies could save money with this approach.

Not So Fast:

  • The very first problem that comes to mind is, of course, security. Sure, you can, as the paper suggests, make sure everything that runs through those servers is encrypted and take other precautions against meddling hosts. But there’s a dissertation’s worth of security research to be done on this question, and moreover, the actual risks, whatever they may be, won’t matter when your customer hears that his data might be routed through some suburban basement. It sounds risky, and making it acceptable to cloud-computing consumers would be a deal breaker.
  • Furthermore, as the authors point out, electricity is 10-50% more expensive in residential areas than in business districts in the US. And if companies don’t want to give homeowners free network upgrades, bandwidth becomes a serious issue too, as the servers could slow a home network to a crawl. These problems, along with the need to shut the servers down when the weather gets warm, severely compromise the usefulness of data furnaces to companies, since the kind and amount of computation they’d be able to handle would be fairly restricted.
  • Despite all this, the authors assert that having these servers situated in neighborhoods, campuses, or other centers of consumer usage means that customers will have faster access to information, a major benefit from companies’ perspectives. But there’s a catch-22 here. Because of the security-bandwidth-electricity trifecta, the servers would only manage low-priority computations. Those computations don’t need to be done close to consumers—in fact, they’re often cited as the kind of computations you can send to server farms in distant deserts.

Our Take:

  • Hooking these two needs together is a good idea. But putting servers in private homes could be a fraught experiment, and the researchers acknowledge as much.
  • It makes much more sense to try this out in places that are already equipped for information security—locked server rooms, and so on—and are themselves dealing with a surfeit of server heat.
  • University campuses and large office buildings, thus, are the natural choice for such a pilot project. Here’s hoping someone will give it a try.

Image credit: hisperati / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology, Top Posts
  • GR

    This is already done in many large server farms, using heat reclaim chillers to heat the supporting office space in the data center using the heat generated by the IT equipment.

  • Thomas

    Surprised that there isn’t a mention of using the heat to pre-heat water for commercial/industrial/personal uses.

  • Cybergor

    I would be willing to do this in my home. I have the space for it, but I don’t use a regular furnace to heat my house. Just a fireplace. If I could come to an agreement as to how the electricity would be paid, I would be all for it.

  • G Wilkins

    I already do this to a very limited degree in my home: the computer room is relatively small and computers and monitors kick off a fair amount of heat; so in the winter time, if I’m going to spend a lot of time on the computer, I can keep the thermostat lower than one usually would and just hang out in the computer room all nice and cozy.

  • Matt the Engineer

    The solution is obviously multi-family buildings. Build a tall condo set on top of a data center. Having a central location removes the security issue, reduces the cost of networking, but still allows you to use the waste heat to heat up condos.

    @1 It’s definately been done for offices, but offices don’t need much heat. They generate loads from lighs (and computers!), and are generally only used in the daytime.

  • larry

    could cooling be done by creating a circulating wall in a thrombe style — using the heat to generate preeze?

  • larry

    could the heat be used thrombe-wall style to create a breeze to cool a south wall in the summer?

  • Brian Too

    Second try at posting.

    There is lots of work going on in server efficiency within Data Centers. So that is a very active area within computing.

    On the other hand, computers widely dispersed within homes, as a cloud-type virtual data center, is much less likely. Not only for the security reason cited above either. The companies doing this kind of work want physical control of that workspace. They want ease of access to the equipment, they want to know that the equipment is operating at the right temperature, they don’t want fires & floods, and if those things happen, they want control to be able to do something about it.

    Here’s some relevant links:




  • Joseph

    While stationed in Japan I lived in a house with some friends. We made one room in the house the computer room. During the winter we never had to heat that room as all our computer and media equipment kept it nicely comfortable as long as the doors stayed closed.


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