Data furnaces: The next big thing in home heating?

Facebook's Prineville, Oregon data center. Could mini versions of this go inside your home? Photo: Alan Brandt

Data centers produce massive amounts of heat, so much so that companies like Facebook have gone to extreme lengths to develop innovative cooling systems to make sure that servers don’t overheat.

But what if you could turn the excess heat from data centers into a home heating solution?

Researchers at Microsoft and The University of Virginia are tackling that very idea, working on ways to put “data furnaces” inside homes, apartments and office buildings as a way to keep residents warm while at the same time powering the Internet.

It’s a bold — and still untested — concept. But the promise of having a micro data center inside a home or condo isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. The researchers — including Microsoft’s Jie Liu, Michel Goraczko, Sean James and Christian Belad — write in a recent research paper that the problem of heat generation at data centers can be turned into an advantage.

“Computers can be placed directly into buildings to provide low latency cloud computing for its offices or residents, and the heat that is generated can be used to heat the building. This approach improves quality of service by moving storage and computation closer to the consumer, and simultaneously improves energy efficiency and reduces costs by reusing the electricity and electrical infrastructure that would normally be used for space heating alone.”

The New York Times featured a story about the data furnace concept today, with author Randall Stross writing that the micro data centers would remain under the remote control of a company operating a larger data center. Stross writes:

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.

The Pacific Northwest has become a hub of data center construction over the years, in part due to the low-cost hydroelectric power from dams on the Columbia River and the cool, dry air from the deserts of Oregon and Washington.

Could it now become a hub of data furnaces?

Putting a tiny data center in a home or apartment unit doesn’t come without its set of unique challenges. The researchers note that data furnaces — in addition to issues related to security — “require high heating reliability and zero touch management.”

After all, if you’re new data furnace fails, you might just be left in the cold.

  • Guest

    This is an excellent idea. Families who today can’t afford their heating bill can simply have one of these installed. They will now be making money from Facebook and they’ll enjoy free heat and Internet! This is a real win-win for America’s poor.

    • Mike

      Will they be able to afford cooling inthe summer with 10kW of load blasting away full time in there closet.

  • http://ClaussConcept.com Jason Gerard Clauss

    They better put good security systems in place.

    • Guest

      Not to mention fire/flood protection.

      • http://ClaussConcept.com Jason Gerard Clauss

        No doubt!

    • Guest

      I think I speak for 800 million people when I say I trust Facebook to have good security.

      • http://ClaussConcept.com Jason Gerard Clauss

        Ha! Good one!

  • http://inarcissus.tumblr.com Narcissus

    can i rent a space?

  • http://chuck.goolsbee.org chuck goolsbee

    This idea would work fine for data that makes sense to be “out there” at small scale, such as content delivery network nodes or video game servers. But services such as iTunes, Amazon, Google et al are usually designed to operate as large-scale, regional clusters with significant network hardware and infrastructure to support them. It just won’t work in facilities smaller than 30,000sq’. I don’t know about you guys but my basement doesn’t come anywhere near that size!

    Besides, who’s going to pay the utility bill? Where is the fiber?

    (BTW, if you dig into the openly published design of the Facebook datacenter you’ll note that they use the waste heat from the servers to heat up the colder outside air to ideal temperature so no real “cooling” is needed most of the time. Very cool indeed!)

  • http://www.appatic.com Avatar X

    In a sense it would be a similar thing like what happens when a commercial or residental building owner rents out the top or the side of the building for Ad Space or a Cellphone Tower. I think that is what they really mean. This is a solution that can work and be adaped for Commercial or Residential compound building blocks. Not for single small buildings or homes.

    Making that very important distinction, i then can certainly see that working out really well. Specially if those in a city that also got lots of cold weather in the USA like Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago.

  • Momma Bear

    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.

    • Mike

      Add the cost of cooling inthe summer ordo you turn it off because who want all the extra heat when the ac is on?

  • Mike

    Do you turn it off during the months were you don’t require heat, thus taking the computing capacity offline. To run it during the months that require air conditioning now means one would have doubled their air conditioning demand. This research assumes that homes are heated electrically. Most in my regions are heated with natural gas which is cheaper per therm than electric. In our region most residents electric bill is the lowest in winter and highest in summer! Not sure I see the benefit

  • God

    you’ll be warm but also taking in radiation