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Microsoft boffins propose cloudy home furnaces

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A team of Microsoft and academic researchers has come up with a proposal for using cloud computing not as an energy drain, but as a source of country-wide energy savings by turning cloudy servers into home and office furnaces.

"In this paper, we argue that servers can be sent to homes and office buildings and used as a primary heat source," write Microsoft and University of Viginia boffins in a paper entitled "The Data Furnace: Heating Up with Cloud Computing".

"We call this approach the Data Furnace or DF," write Jie Liu, Michel Goraczko, Sean James, and Christian Belady of Microsoft Research, joined by Jiakang Lu and Kamin Whitehouse of UVa's Computer Science Department.

Their idea is simplicity itself, if unwieldy and sketchy about bulletproof security precautions. The central premise: "Cloud computing is hot, literally," they write. How about not merely wasting that heat through expensive data-center cooling systems, but instead putting it to work heating the aforementioned homes and office building?

"From the home owner's perspective," they propose, "a DF is equivalent to a typical heating system: a metal cabinet is shipped to the home and added to the ductwork or hot water pipes."

Voilà! A number-crunching home furnace, with the excess heat keeping the residents toasty in cold weather, and the crunched numbers wafting out over the cloud to whatever service provider, well, provided the service.

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The paper suggests that server "exhaust" – which it pegs as being typically around 40-50°C (104-122°F) – isn't hot enough to be used to directly generate electricity, but is "perfect" for such uses as home and office space heating, clothes dryers, water heaters, and – somewhat puzzlingly – "agriculture".

"We propose to replace electric resistive heating elements with silicon heating elements," is the key to their vision, "thereby reducing societal energy footprint by using electricity for heating to also perform computation."

The paper cites recent advances in cloud computing as enabling the distribution and management of such dispersed servers, and notes that "from a manageability and physical security point of view," the easiest places to begin to implement their idea would be in office buildings and apartment complexes, using existing broadband links.

Into those locations they would place "a mid-sized data center (e.g. hundreds of killowatts)." Such an installation, they believe, could be easily secured, could support the hiring of a data center operator, and could "leverage the current trend toward sealed server containers that are replaced as a unit to save repair/replacement costs."

The paper runs the numbers on DFs placed in single-family homes in five different US climate zones, using different cloudy throughput requirements and different broadband connections from low-cost 12Mbps-down/2Mbps-up cable to T3 and FiOS. Each scenario has its advantages and disadvantages, but overall the researchers contend that their idea is doable.

Speaking of disadvantages, they do recognize one glaring one: hot days. When the outside temperature is greater than 35°C (95°F) in their model, "the server may have to be shut down for thermo protection since we do not expect cooling the furnace."

Considering this summer's oh-so-toasty US heatwave, it would appear that their highly distributed cloud would have experienced quite a bit of downtime over the past few weeks.

It should also be noted that Microsoft Research is located in cool, grey Redmond, Washington. ®

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