The Machines Will Keep Us Warm

I’m a big believer that the machines have already taken over. I recently gave a talk at the Defrag Conference titled “Resistance is Futile” where I made the point that we don’t know whether – in the future – we will be machine-enhanced humans or biologically-enhanced machines, but that it doesn’t matter. In either case, I’m optimistic about the future and think the machines will be our friends.

In today’s New York Times, Randall Stross has a great article titled Turn On the Server. It’s Cold Inside. In it he talks about a paper The Data Furnace: Heating Up with Cloud Computing. The abstract follows:

“In this paper, we argue that servers can be sent to homes and office buildings and used as a primary heat source. We call this approach the Data Furnace or DF. Data Furances have three advantages over traditional data centers: 1) a smaller carbon footprint 2) reduced total cost of ownership per server 3) closer proximity to the users. From the home owner’s perspective, 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. From a technical perspective, DFs create new opportunities for both lower cost and improved quality of service, if cloud computing applications can exploit the differences in the cost structure and resource profile between Data Furances and conventional data centers.”

As data centers become a more significant part of our universe, I think this is a fantastic idea. In the Matrix, humans were used to power the machines. That’s a classical dystopian view of the machine / human relationship. How about turning it around and having the machines warm the humans.

Think about it. Would you be game to have a data center in your basement if heating for your house was free as a result?

  • The future, that is.

  • And necessity is the mother of invention so colder climates may inspire the construction of inefficient super hot servers.  

  • Ok, I’m one of the [few?] people who’ve actually had a data center in his house.  Real, honest-to-dog cage, multiple 1U pizza boxes, built-in keyboard/monitor/mouse multiplexer, 65+minute active UPS (w/ dual batteries, natch) T1 etc.

    Three practical considerations – this thing was:

    – Loud.  The servers each had in-board fans (as expected), but the UPS also had one.  It was abt the same size + produced the same noise as a constantly running car engine at ~1500 rpm.

    – Huge.  It took up a good chunk of my home office and was a bitch to move.  The fucking thing nearly squashed me the two times I foolishly tried to move it myself.  Yes, it had casters, but it was so tall, I had to lean it over to clear my doorways.  Hilarity ensured both times.

    – A power hog.  Having this thing powered up was like having a second house tacked onto the Public Service bill.  It added abt $1000 to the monthly bill at its most expensive.  As the service it was powering grew in popularity (freepository), the ‘idle’ time of the disks went from perhaps 50% to 0.  When freepository went global, this thing was always writing to disk, and that was even *louder*.

    But you know what?  It was Very Warm.

    • Is the noise of the servers significantly greater than the noise of my natural gas-burning boiler?

      • Never having heard your boiler, I can’t say.  

        My approximation of the noise level (like a running car engine at fast idle) is abt as accurate as I can be.

  • Nick

    “My other heater is a datacenter”

  • Based on John’s comment, it seems the technology isn’t far enough along to make this feasible for private homes, but what about public housing?

    I’m looking out my window at the recently constructed Bud Clark Commons here in Portland, OR and marveling at what a perfect solution this would be. Put the servers in the basement, baffle it so there would be some noise in the ground-floor common areas but virtually none in the upper floors, and ask private companies to chip in for the electrical costs in exchange for a nice PR boost. 

    • This was state-of-the-art c. Jan 2000.  All totalled, abt ~$75k in gear; the servers were super high-end, but the even then not the most expensive to be had.

      If I were to do it today, I’d do a build-out in my basement rather than bring in pre-fab cabinets + racks for installation on the main floor.  The concrete floor would ensure I don’t overload + wld also be helpful as a back-stop against fire-suppression systems, which I’d put in as well.  Servers are so cheap today that I’d put in at least a dozen, probably 20 right at the start.

      Not that I’ve thought abt it or anything.

  • Bello

    foster the people. nurture the senses.

  • Ironically, I *just* read the NYT article before catching up on my blogs and seeing your post.  I thought it was a super-clever idea, but with real logistic issues that would need to be worked out (they made a minor mention to security issues, which will be LARGE and something that can’t be glossed over).  They also mentioned that this idea would likely start in basements of small businesses – which I agree is a great place/way to try this out.  Having said that, I would definitely be a guinea pig in my own home, storing a few racks in the unfinished part of my basement near the furnace.  Would the hosting company pay for a faster broadband connection?  I think that would likely be needed – we’re on cable here, and so you can’t count on a reliable speed given all the sharing with my YouTube hogging neighbors 🙂

  • JamesHRH

    I love it.

    And I totally agree that Hollywood has always gone dark side on the machine / human thing.

    I mean, 7of9 being the exception here.

  • I am game. 

  • Spark05

    Heating your home with a computer is nothing new to me… I have been heating my home for many years by participating in volunteer computing to advance research important to me.  Though the commercialization of the installation brings many new opportunities especially if the model can move past multi-occupant buildings and into individual homes.  The home server heating would encourage deployment of higher speed broadband to the home and could help with the last mile costs as well as provide the opportunity to encourage networked homes and reduce hardware needs if the heating server included a “home” rack where the home could tie into for automation and virtual computer hosting for the home residents.  I will be following developments closely.

  • I’m in. I’d prefer to call it – like Brian Reynolds did – the ascent to transcendence.  

  • It seems like the servers themselves in data centers will continue to get smaller and more efficient based on Moore’s law, thus eventually not making this work.  Or perhaps, it will just mean you can store what we’d consider a large datacenter today in someone’s basement.

    • Correct on the “what we consider a large datacenter in someone’s basement.”

  • James Mitchell

    The issue is not whether a home owner is willing to have a server in his basement. Rather, the issue is whether a company is willing to have their data and applications running on a server in someone’s basement.

    The reason companies choose to house their servers in a data center rather than onsite is that data centers offer a lot of advantages — multiple points of presence to the Internet, raised floors, special cooling, spare parts, often located in places where electricity is inexpensive, staffed by technicians who understand the hardware and software stack. These advantages do not exist in someone’s basement.

    So the most likely users of this would be companies like Facebook and Google, companies with a large number of servers, with massive redundancy, and where the quality of service is not high. If Facebook or Google give slightly different results, it is not the end of the world. There is no way a bank, for example, would ever agree to this. As for MY company’s data, it will reside either in a state-of-the-art data center or in my own office (the latter only if latency matters a lot), not in someone’s basement. And for any supplier of mine, if I learned they kept their apps and data this way, they would quickly become an ex-supplier.

  • Kevinspacey74

    impressive! I like this blog!freelance research reports

  • The perfect companion to a Nest Thermostat !

  • Karen Landrum Pellegrin

    I’m absolutely ready for my machine friends to keep me warm and healthy. I’ve been sliced and diced so much that I dream of the day when my nanite friends can come make me whole again. Hooray the future!

  • Anonymous

    Between DVRs, NAS drives, PCs, and a Linux-based server appliance, I’m partway there already.

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