Finding a physical space to store our voluminous cloud-based data is a problem, sure, but keeping the servers cooled down is another, much bigger problem–and an environmentally unfriendly one at that. Instead of installing expensive cooling systems, future networked data centers could use the waste heat of computing to keep people warm.
A new paper from Microsoft Research proposes using servers as “data furnaces,” installed in homes or businesses and connected to the air ducts. As a rectangular metal cabinet, it would look like any other furnace, attached to the ductwork and hot water pipes. Homeowners wouldn’t even notice the difference — except, of course, for the huge power draw that a server requires.
Microsoft researchers Jie Liu, Michel Goraczko, Sean James and Christian Belady, working with Jiakang Lu and Kamin Whitehouse at the University of Virginia, explain that the exhaust from a typical computer server is not hot enough to use for electricity generation. But servers’ exhaust typically runs between 104 and 122 degrees F, Gizmag points out, which is enough to heat up a home. The servers are usually cooled with fans and air conditioning systems in data centers. For this reason, data centers might be installed in chilly areas or away from populated areas, but that’s not very efficient.
Data furnaces would be much smaller than typical data centers, consisting of 40 to 400 Internet-connected CPUs, depending on the size of the home or business, and would enable homeowners and IT firms to conceivably save money and resources. There would be less need to construct huge new spaceship-like data centers, for instance, and micro-centers distributed throughout a residential area or office park would provide lower network latency, Gizmag notes.
Liu et. al point out that old servers can be easily recycled into homes, serving as backup for disk maintenance.
Security is one obvious question — how could IT companies ensure that a client’s confidential data is safe in some random family’s basement? What about floods, power outages, or server snafus?
Microsoft answers these questions by suggesting that host households agree to change the air filters occasionally and to shut off the servers if required, in exchange for free heat. What about free Windows updates? No word on that, sorry.