Heat your home with data

Server farms generate so much heat that they have to run air conditioning year round. That requires energy, which costs money and tends to mean burning more fossil fuels. Meanwhile, in winter, a lot of houses are cold. The people who live there have to turn on the heat, which costs money and tends to mean burning more fossil fuels.

So here's an idea: Why not distribute the hardware from a server farm, putting heat-producing equipment in houses that actually need the heat?

If a home has a broadband Internet connection, it can serve as a micro data center. One, two or three cabinets filled with servers could be installed where the furnace sits and connected with the existing circulation fan and ductwork. Each cabinet could have slots for, say, 40 motherboards — each one counting as a server. In the coldest climate, about 110 motherboards could keep a home as toasty as a conventional furnace does.

The rest of the year, the servers would still run, but the heat generated would be vented to the outside, as harmless as a clothes dryer’s. The researchers suggest that only if the local temperature reached 95 degrees or above would the machines need to be shut down to avoid overheating. (Of course, adding a new outside vent on the side of the house could give some homeowners pause.)

According to the researchers’ calculations, a conventional data center must invest about $400 a year to run each server, or about $16,000 for a cabinet filled with 40 of them. (This includes the costs of building a bricks-and-mortar center and of cooling the machines.)

Having homes host the machines could reduce the need for a company to build new data centers. And the company’s cost to operate the same cabinet in a home would be less than $3,600 a year — and leave a smaller carbon footprint, too. The company’s data center could thus cover the homeowner’s electricity costs for the servers and still come out way ahead financially.

It could certainly produce some logistical problems with security, but it's an intriguing idea, and a great example of how we can get the energy services we want for much less energy use. The researchers who proposed it, from Microsoft and the University of Virginia, call it a "data furnace." It'll be interesting to see where the idea goes from here.

Read the white paper where the idea of data furnaces was introduced. White papers are not peer-reviewed, by the way.

Read the New York Times article quoted above.

Via Geekwire and Stephen Curry

Image:Image: Dawdle's new servers - front, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from dawdledotcom's photostream


    1. Seriously.  If someone can’t afford heat, what’s going to happen when you hand them a piece of electronics worth thousands of dollars?

    2. When we go through our yearly Sarbanes Oxley testing, our auditors would love it when they get to testing Physical Security and Environmental Controls for our servers!

      1. Cripes.  I never thought of that.  I worked for a small newspaper that was part of a much larger corporation, and the corporation approved Mac Pros as fileservers for several locations, but would turn down things like building maintenance and, at our location, air conditioning. 

        Why, oh why, didn’t I think of that while I worked there?

  1. I’m guessing that whoever owned the servers would be paying for the electricity and internet bills? Because otherwise, servers are just really inefficient electric space heaters.

    1. If you mean they are inefficient, electric space heaters, I will agree. There are other forms of heating that are more efficient (e.g., heat pumps). If you are saying that as electric space heaters go, servers are inefficient, then thermodynamics will like a word with you. A 1000W heater and a 1000W rack both consume the same amount of energy (1 kJ every second), and unless it performs work and stores it somehow, all that energy is converted into heat. Servers are perfectly efficient electric space heaters.

      What kills this idea dead is maintenance. Do you want to send your IT person out every hour when a harddrive / fan / powersupply / blinkenlight dies? I suppose you would trade performance for reliability and uptime, but then I suspect heat wouldn’t be so much of  an issue to begin with.

  2. Skipping over the obvious reasons why this isn’t such a hot idea (pun intended), what happens if, god forbid, a cooler and more efficient server is invented?  And said invention happens long before the lifespan of a house has passed?

    1. There are theoretical limits on that, but I suppose said server will also be smaller, so you could just install more of them and your house will be toasty again.

  3. I think this could be useful, but more so in the public or commercial area. Security and quality of service from random peoples houses would be a big issue. Places like campuses, office buildings, and warehouses still need to be heated as well, but offer so much more in physical security, access to equipment for repairs, and the space to set this up. Although I’m not sure how easy it would be to retrofit an existing building but incorporating this into the floor plan of a new building would be surefire savings. 

    1. Yeah, because of the obvious home electricity/bandwidth/security issues, it seems like it would work better in office buildings.  Then again, every office building I’ve ever been in seems to have been designed and built without any heating/cooling issues taken into consideration, so I’d guess that simply building offices that take those things into account would save more CO2 than this plan would.

  4. Wow.. Possibly one of the dumbest articles I’ve read this year.

    So firstly, noise. If you’ve ever been in a data centre, you’ll know what I mean. Secondly, power.. Data centres are built with clean, uninterupted power in mind. Houses are not. How would you servers… serve? Across the home owner’s poor broadband connection? Data centres have massive gbit leased lines providing connectivity.

  5. I believe that this would actually work on new construction project that was purpose built with this in mind. Having a revenue generating “heating plant”  serving (pun intended) a large building’s (or group of smaller building’s) heating needs is entirely feasible. In fact, you could use a similar setup to existing geothermal systems and even couple with them.

  6. Running a server doesn’t have to mean burning fossil fuels. My host is Burly House Networks, which uses solar, wind, and biogas to run its servers. It doesn’t cost me that much more. 

    1. Renewable offsets are a valuable thing, but don’t be mistaken – unless Burly has a completely isolated electric supply, then the energy that is powering their servers *does* include non-renewable sources. Despite their claims to the contrary, ( http://www.burlyhouse.net/article/green-faq#Energy ) buying 100% renewable energy does not guarantee that every electron that makes its way into their facility originated from PV/Wind/Biomass, etc. 

      Austin Energy’s fuel mix is shown on this document – in small print: http://www.austinenergy.com/Energy%20Efficiency/Programs/Green%20Choice/supplyContentLabel.pdf

  7. Fully enumerating the reasons this is a bad idea would take to long.  Let’s just quickly summarize:

    Security – Enough said.

    Power – Servers in datacenters (at least good ones) run on clean, conditioned power with battery backups and redundant lines.  Does your home have redundant power feeds from your provider?  What about a backup generator and transfer gear that will take over before the backup batteries discharge?

    Access – You want to let “random” people in your house to work on the systems at any and all hours?  Oh, you’re on vacation?  Tough.  They need the keys in case a system barfs.  At 2:00 AM.  On a Sunday.

    Accidents – I don’t care if the cabinets are fully self-contained with titanium wire conduits, an accident will happen and cause an outage.  Human error is already the biggest reason for datacenter downtime.  Putting servers in the home of someone who doesn’t work around them all hours is asking for it.

    Bandwidth – Is the homeowner paying for it?  Because even if they have 50/50 synchronous FttP that’s going to be a huge bill, especially if their provider charges by bytes transferred instead of transfer rate.

    Should I go on?

    I work in a tier 3 datacenter and deal with servers all day.  I know what’s required to keep them happy, and you won’t find that combination of things in a home.  Hell, you won’t find that combination of things in what most companies call their ‘datacenter’.  While distributing the heat and cutting down on fossil fuel consumption seems like a good idea, there are far too many logistical and technical hurdles to placing servers directly in peoples’ homes (or even in sheds in their back yards).

  8. Something that you may find interesting:

    There are data centers in Helsinki, Finland that are cooled by the city’s district cooling system and in return feed their (quite substantial) waste heat to the city’s district heating system. Apparently one such data center can provide heating for around 500 “large houses”.


    (For more on district heating: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/District_heating )

  9. I heated my dorm room in the middle of a Ottawa winter back in the day with my first generation Athlon. Even had to crack a window once in a while.

  10. I had a similar idea for the YMCA that I go to. They run AC in the gym to counteract all the heat being generated by the exercisers, and they run a heater to heat the cold water in the heated indoor pool. I often wonder if there is an efficient way to transfer the heat from the gym’s air to the pool’s water.

  11. Most of the objections posted on this thread so far are directly addressed in the original white paper itself (see link above), not to mention the NY Times article that references it (see other link above).

  12. I’d sign up for something like that for my house. Just tell IT guys to wipe their feet when traipsing through.

  13. In college we had data closets in apartment style student dorms, there was at least one per building. You could hear the hum and feel the heat coming from under the door. We would joke about breaking in to install servers or hijack everyone else’s bandwidth but never did. I saw more than one person under the influence and ignorant of the tubes freak the fuck out at parties in the apartments with a data closet. They would be looking for the bathroom and discover this mysterious humming locked door radiating heat and just totally lose their shit.

  14. So the idea is to run cooling all year round in these houses instead? And in the summer months double down on the cooling? And temperatures that most of the US reaches for lengthy times every summer shuts your data center down?

    I don’t see how this is more efficient at all…

  15. I’ve been heating a room in my house by playing Skyrim. My computer can put off some serious heat. 

  16. The article says that during the summer, the hot air is simply exhausted out of the building.  Well, makeup air has to come from somewhere as this would create a large negative pressure inside the house.  All that hot and humid air would overwhelm the house’s AC unit.  Good idea during the winter.  Bad idea during the summer.

  17. maybe we can just recast this in a more modest form.

    my home office/studio is in the back 1/3 of our garage. i lined the 12″ thick with another 12″ of fiberglass and then drywall; the ceiling has 2-3 layers of R40 fiber glass; the floor has 2″ solid expanded foam separating the subfloor from the concrete. the windows are the original, old leaky casement windows. total size is about 8’x16′.

    now drop into  this environment:

       * 6 core 3.2GHz Phenom II custom build, running Linux, no frequency scaling
       * 2 core 1.6Ghz Core II Mac mini
       * occasional use of an old G4 mac
       * 16 channels of A/D-D/A conversion
       * 400 W amplifier

    and I don’t need heat in here until January and can do without it again by the end of March. in Pennsylvania. the above equipment hardly constitutes a furnace, and this space is far from as sealed up as it could be. but it keeps my space toasty for all but the deep cold part of the winter.

  18. Or you could uses more efficient architecture CPUs for your servers; like ARMs.See for example the Calxeda ‘EnergyCore’ ARM server SoC, or the ARMv8 architecture recently announced.
    Intel’s x86 chips have always been a waste of perfectly good sand.

  19. Hah, I had been thinking about something like this years ago when I was batting around the idea of  racking all my running systems into one closed cabinet with a chimney vent and running that up and through the ventilation with a small fan to give the hot air a push to the  rest of the apt. Don’t really know how that would all work in practice though.

  20. The idea ignores to big issues.  Bandwidth and power costs. 

    Typically a data center has lower costs per Kw/hr as they are large buyers/consumers of power.  They qualify for lower rates and also can qualify for different schedules based on the ability to endure brown/black outs.  Cost of Kw/hr can be significantly lower than a home service.

    Bandwidth is also a significant factor here as there is a reason that companies will co-locate together.  They can just throw a piece of fiber over the fence and have the ability to move 100s of Gb/s with very little cost.   Data at a residential location will mean having to deal with a last mile provider at significant costs and bandwidth limitations.

  21. Think for a minute about how often your home power goes out, and how often you have issues with your home internet service.  Now imagine you’re a business owner, and how many thousands of dollars each of those incidents could cost you.  It doesn’t take very much imagination to realize what a terrible idea this is.

  22. I believe that the Internet Archive claims to do something like this already, storing most of their servers in what would otherwise be the furnace room of their building, with vents that connect to other rooms.  I can’t vouch for it’s effectiveness (I visited there in the summer), but as long as their servers are producing that heat regardless, they might as well try to put it to use.

  23. Seems like there would be plenty of apartment buildings with space in the basement that could be converted to mini data centers.  Landlord gets some lease money, data center gets cheap space, tenants get cheap heat.  Obviously would be easier for new construction to put in everything needed in the first place.  Maybe some kinds of commercial establishments like large restaurants or ski lodges could lease space out for data centers.  Office buildings were already discussed.  We don’t have to imagine this is happening in suburban two-stories.  Recycling waste heat anywhere frees up money and fuel for better things (keeping fuel prices lower for the two-stories if nothing else).

  24. The colorado school of mines is heated using waste steam/heat from the coors brewery across the street. The really big data centers using renewable energy are too far from population centers for this sort of thing to work.

  25. My computer at home has it’s main exhaust fans on the top, blowing warm, dry air upwards.
    I have found that the grills on top make a very good drying rack for, ahem, *herbs*.
    Anyway, I like the idea of it being a gaming machine AND a 300W space heater.

  26. The basic idea of recyling the inevitable waste heat is a good one, but these things usually work out far better on an industrial/institutional scale. The way to do this would be to plan data centers as closely integrated parts of office/campus complexes, and to put the waste heat to use heating those institutional buildings.

  27. It looks great on paper, but there are some fundamental flaws with the idea that
    would have to be resolved before this is a viable one.

    Here are just a few questions to raise:

    1.        Who guarantees security? 

    a.       Placement would require a significant background check equivalent to a top secret clearance to ensure data and equipment are not at risk – placing such equipment in a private home invokes provisions of a bailment for hire requiring
    extraordinary care –at the very least, that will raise insurance rates.

    b.      Placement would require additional physical security, including alarm systems/services, video surveillance, hardened entrys, etc.

    2.       Even when properly set up, the backup Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) and the server units themselves can pose an additional risk of fire, requiring
    modification of any “cabinet” to meet higher standards for fire safety – that
    raises modification and insurance costs – how is that going to be addressed in a
    “host” contract and who will pay for the increased costs?

    3.       What happens if power goes out (ref today’s SAExpress headline re: Rolling Blackouts this is going to be an increasing issue as population expands) – does the server farm owner intend to provide the host home with an adequate backup generator and supply of fuel?

    4.       What happens if the host home owner sells and moves – will the server farm owner pay to move the server assembly as well as make modifications to the new host home (and what impact will it have on home value)?  If not moving it, how can they guarantee security without having the ability to screen new owners?

    a.       If simply removing the server assembly in the event of a sale, will they retrofit the furnace/ac or will that be a home owner’s responsibility?  Home owners are not likely to enter into contracts that do not have a retrofit clause unless they are completely ignorant.

  28. I often thought, when I would fire up the Liebert in our data center during the winter, that it would probably make much more sense and save a ton of energy/money to instead just pump in the 20-30 degree air from the outside to cool the room. Or at least work them in tandem with the A/C load reduced.

    I’d walk out of the server room, which was bellowing with the cold howl of the huge A/C unit, into the offices which were sultry from the heat cranked full blast. Seemed stupid to be burning power to cool a room when cold air was waiting for free on the other side of the 7th floor curtain wall.

    The idea of moving servers to private homes is idiotic. But lessening the A/C load with ambient seasonal cold, probably a better avenue to research.

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