Dutch Companies Look to Heat Homes With Servers

Tech startup Nerdalize teams up with energy company Eneco in a program to use cloud servers to heat residences while they run workloads.

Servers for heat

An energy company and a technology startup in the Netherlands are the latest companies to test whether housing servers in residences can help families reduce their heating costs as the systems run their workloads.

Eneco is installing radiator-size servers that the energy company is calling eRadiators in five homes in the country. The servers, built by 2-year-old Nerdalize, will be part of the system maker's compute cloud. While the servers are churning away, the heat they generate will be used by Eneco to heat the homes.

The companies expect that the program will reduce the compute costs for Nerdalize customers by 30 percent to 55 percent, while bringing enough free heat to the homes to reportedly shave more than $400 off the families' energy bills. Officials with Nerdalize, which was founded in 2013, said there are three key benefits: Sustainable computing power becomes more affordable, emissions are greatly reduced and homes are heated for free.

The Nerdalize Cloud reduces the cost-per-job by distributing the computing power over the homes so customers don't have to pay for the overhead of a data center. The systems include support for Docker containers for easier integration with customers' existing clouds, and all instances come with solid-state drives (SSDs) and up to 32GB of memory per CPU.

The project is the latest of several around the world in which power and tech companies look for ways to take advantage of the high levels of heat that servers can generate as they do their work. In most data centers, servers are set up in a hot-aisle, cold-aisle configuration, with the hot air generated being piped out of the data center or into a recycling system, where it's cooled and reused.

Microsoft Research engineers in 2011 teamed up with the Computer Science Department at the University of Virginia to issue a research paper advocating for the idea of housing data center systems in homes and buildings, an approach they called a "data furnace."

For cloud vendors, such a model would hold several advantages over traditional data centers, including reducing their overall carbon footprint, cutting the total cost of ownership per server and bringing computing closer to end users. For homeowners, the benefit is reduced heating costs.

Last year, a German startup cloud services provider proposed putting its servers in homes and office buildings to heat the rooms and water. In its program, building and homeowners pay about $15,000 and Cloud & Heat Technologies, which was founded in 2011, hooks a housing unit into the building's heating system. Cloud & Heat pays for the electricity used to power the compute systems.

Tech vendors also have used the heat created in their own data centers in nearby company offices. For example, IBM and the state of Montana in 2010 unveiled the Big Sky supercomputer, a system comprising IBM x86 and Power-based servers that includes a cooling exchange system based on IBM's Cool Blue technology. The heat from the supercomputer was used to heat the several nearby offices. Last year, Hewlett-Packard officials said the heat collected by its water-cooled Apollo 8000 supercomputer can be used to heat some adjoining rooms.

The cloud computing model frees service providers from having to house their servers in centralized data centers, enabling them to put systems in such remote places as residences. The eRadiators that Eneco is installing in five homes will be used to run complex calculations and other compute-intensive jobs for an array of companies and research institutions, such as new medicine workloads for the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

In the homes, a closed water system will be heated by the server, with a device in place to control how much heat is released. Any extra heat will be sent outside the home through a pipe.

Eneco will leave the servers in the homes through the end of the year, after which the energy company and Nerdalize will determine how to expand the program to other homes.