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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.

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