'Data furnaces' could heat homes if companies warm up to idea

Researchers are looking at the concept of "data furnaces," which they say could offer low-cost home heating in exchange for housing a miniature computer server farm.

Data furnaces are a hot idea, but the concept of residential server farms could give companies cold feet.

Facebook chose Lulea, Sweden, for its new server farm partly because the cold climate will help keep its servers cool and partly because of access to renewable energy from nearby hydropower facilities. (Scanpix, Sweco, The Node Pole/Associated Press)

Each winter my wife and I wait until the very last possible moment to turn on our electric baseboard heating. We love our apartment, but we live in an old building that leaks heat like a sieve. So until the cold becomes unbearable, we generally opt for sweaters, extra blankets, and if it gets really chilly, a space heater.

That's why I was particularly interested to read about the concept of "data furnaces," which, according to researchers at Microsoft and the University of Virginia, could provide people with low-cost (or free) home heating in exchange for housing a miniature computer server farm.

Sadly, data furnaces are just a concept. But what an intriguing concept they are.

How it works

Here's the simple idea: computers get hot, and there are an awful lot of computers in the world.

The boom in digital communications technology and the popularity of so-called "cloud computing" has resulted in the construction of massive server farms and data centres made up of hundreds or thousands of computers. That's a lot of processing power, and a lot of heat, which usually requires seriously heavy-duty cooling systems. Facebook, for instance, recently announced plans to build a large facility in Lulea, Sweden, just south of the Arctic Circle, to make use of the cold air.

But what if you could use the heat produced by computer servers to keep homes and offices warm in the wintertime?

Enter the data furnace, a smaller scale data centre made up of between 40 to 400 computers. The idea is that these data furnaces could be hooked up to existing ductwork and hot water pipes as a drop-in replacement for an existing furnace. Instead of heating your home with gas or oil, you'd heat it with computer processors and spinning hard drives.

This kind of heat recycling is already happening, albeit on a larger scale. In Winnipeg, Quebecor runs a data centre and redirects heat from their servers to the adjacent offices of the Winnipeg Sun. There's another example in Helsinki, Finland, where water that's used to cool a data centre is then pumped to provide heat for residential areas. Other examples abound.

So how is a data furnace different from these types of projects?

According to Jie Liu and Kamin Whitehouse, two of the co-authors of The Data Furnace: Heating Up with Cloud Computing, the difference has to do with scale. Rather than a large server farm feeding into a central heating system (like in the Winnipeg or Helsinki examples), we're talking about several small, mini-data centres powering individual homes or condo buildings. Rather than a large centralized facility, it's a decentralized network. For businesses used to data centre centralization, that's a paradigm shift.

Of course, for geeks like me, the idea of heating my home with a mini server farm that's subsidized by a cloud computing company sounds like a wintertime dream come true. But what about the summer? Would a data furnace have to run all year round?

Not necessarily. Liu and Whitehouse suggest that there could be different types of data furnaces. Some would run year round. But there could be other "seasonal data furnaces" that would only run during the night or during the winter.

Seasonal data furnaces could be lower-cost options. They could piggyback on existing broadband connections like the cable or DSL connection you already have. And they could use older model hardware — servers that are a couple of years old. This older hardware is often less energy efficient than newer hardware, which isn't great if the goal is fast processing. But if the goal is generating heat, they could be a good fit.

The catch

Again, this is in the concept phase right now, and getting a data furnace to market is not without its challenges. 

For instance, data security: how do you keep private information safe in the cloud, if the cloud is in someone's basement? 

And there's the price of bandwidth: in some cases, these data furnaces would use your existing home broadband connection to the internet. That's not always the fastest. And here in Canada, many ISPs impose bandwidth caps. Do you really want to call up your ISP and explain that the reason you transferred too many gigabytes last month is because you're running a mini server farm?

Another challenge has to do with outages. What happens when the power goes out? Or the broadband goes out? I've visited large data centres before, and the redundancy and back-up systems are mind-blowing. They have backup generators, and backup backup generators. Most homes weren't built with this kind of use in mind.

But for me, these and the many other hurdles don't make the idea any less intriguing.

Now, if you're not ready to install a mini server farm in your basement, it's worth remembering that if you have a computer running in your home or office right now, it's already helping to heat that space.

And here's the surprising thing: According to green IT consultant Bill St. Arnaud, if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, you should resist the urge to power down your computer in the winter months. That's because of where most of our energy comes from in Canada. According to St. Arnaud, most electricity comes from hydro, whereas home heating generally comes from gas or oil (which has higher CO2 emissions). Your computer is already turning electricity into heat. If you turn it off, you may end up increasing your carbon footprint by compensating with gas or oil heat.

So perhaps this winter, instead of reaching for the thermostat, I'll just snuggle up with my PC instead.