How an In-home Data Furnace Just Might Save the World

Despite the rumors, it’s actually not a very good idea to use your laptop on your lap. As anyone who’s ever tried to watch a movie in bed or spent hours surfing on the couch can tell you, laptops, like every other computer ever made, get really, really hot after a while. In fact, every year people get major and minor burns because they let their laptops stay in contact with their skin for too long. Yeah, it happens.

Well, some smart people over at Microsoft Research are looking at a problem (all that waste heat from the millions and billions of electronic devices across the world) and seeing a solution that could help the environment, the computing world, and the ever-important bottom line. What is this amazing notion that has the potential to do so much good? Simple. Using our electronic devices to heat our homes and businesses.

Now, at this point you may be raising your eyebrow with skepticism. I mean, sure, your PS3 gets hot and all but it doesn’t even generate enough heat to warm your grandmother’s basement, much less her entire house. Well, hold on just a minute. What if you were to install a storage server or two (or twenty) in the backroom? Microsoft’s study suggests that by doing just that we could create “data furnaces” that would heat homes, improve cloud computing, and save a whole lot of energy in the process.

Right now there are data centers (facilities designed to house storage servers and large-scale computers) all over the world that spend as much as 50 percent of the energy needed to operate the facility on cooling. The extra energy needed to cool the processors for optimal performance contributes heavily to the world’s carbon consumption and creates a financial burden for the companies who run these centers.

Some companies, such as IBM, are already harnessing the extra heat from their data centers for use in nearby buildings, but the plan suggested by the study would go a step further and put the servers themselves directly into homes and businesses. One advantage that this de-centralization method has is that creating mini server farms closer to end users could have positive repercussions for the speed of cloud computing applications.

There are some hurdles to overcome, however. Electricity costs much more in residential neighborhoods that it does in industrial areas. There is also the question of whether private users would have a broadband connection that can handle the speed and capacity needed for data storage. It’s not clear whether these costs could be offset by the savings that would be generated from the decreased energy needed for cooling.

Still, if companies like Microsoft were willing to incentivize the plan a little for regular consumers, this idea could take off. Soon, instead of going over to the thermostat to crank up the temperature, you might be installing a few server racks. Everyone wins.

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