Harnessing Data Center Heat to Warm Houses

Harnessing Data Center Heat to Warm Houses

Cloud computing and energy consumption have a tumultuous relationship. While proponents of cloud computing believe that it not only saves energy (See: How Green Is Cloud Computing?) but also reduces expenses (See: Saving Money on Energy by Going on the Cloud ), opponents say that the technology merely replaces energy expenditure at client sites with economically-unfriendly data centers (See: Environmental Challenges to Cloud Computing). Now, Microsoft has come up with a proposal that can possibly bridge this difference of opinion.

Anybody who has owned a laptop is no stranger to the heat produced by computers. In fact, one of prime unique selling propositions of premium laptops is their ability to function producing less heat and with more effective cooling, thereby making work on long flights less uncomfortable. Replace laptops with servers, and it is easy to deduce that data centers consume a lot of energy, and as a byproduct of their operations, produce a lot of heat. In fact, more energy is used for cooling purposes than for actual storage and processing of data. To give you a perspective, data centers consumed up to 1.5% of total US energy used in 2007, which is 0.5% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Considering that cloud computing has grown considerably since then, these figures are definitely higher today.

Now, Microsoft Research, in collaboration with Virginia University, has published a paper titled “The Data Furnace: Heating Up with Cloud Computing”, has proposed an idea that may allow the constructive use of the tremendous heat generated by data centers. Using the term “Data Furnaces” for cloud computing servers, the paper proposes using them to heat homes and buildings. In fact, Microsoft believes that such Data Furnaces can actually be sold to homeowners and businesses for heating purposes.

Besides the obvious benefit of earning money through Data Furnace sales, a cloud computing company will benefit from not having to spend on air conditioning. Also, this setup would offer lower network latency because computation and storage systems can be placed closer to highly populated areas that will use them, thereby improving the company’s services. For the homeowner or business housing the Data Furnace, electricity costs would be lesser as there would be no heating bills. And of course, the environment benefits through lower fuel consumption and lesser heat released into the atmosphere.

Jie Liu, Michel Goraczko, Sean James, Christian Belady of Microsoft, and Jiakang Lu, Kamin Whitehouse of the University of Virginia are the researchers who wrote the paper. They propose several different methods to commercialize this idea. One is larger systems with T1 lines that work primarily during the heating season and built with less efficient, recycled servers. Another is the use of small units that can use existing broadband connections to transfer data.

Of course, this throws up the obvious question of data security. As I have mentioned time and time again, security is the prime hurdle in wider adoption of cloud computing. Therefore, people who distrust their data on distant servers will definitely not be happy about their data being on residential property. Secondly, the issue of dependability will also have to be addressed. Data centers have failsafe systems that ensure that servers are always up and running; is it possible to ensure such redundancy in Data Furnaces as proposed in the paper?

While questions remain, the idea does seem to have potential. It is certainly useful that these researchers have put figures to an idea that may well have struck many a laptop-toting businessman working during long flights. With cloud computing set to expand over the next few years, this is an idea definitely worth exploring.

By Sourya Biswas

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