A German company wants to turn server farms into "distributed cloud heaters." By spreading computing power across a number of buildings, the company believes that it can provide reliable computing services while increasing the energy efficiency of these notoriously wasteful centers.

Server farms currently use the equivalent of about 30 nuclear power plants worth of energy each year. As global demand for websites, e-mail, and Internet commerce continues to grow, this number is rising more quickly than any other part of the building sector. To make matters worse, computing hubs are notorious for their low energy efficiency, frequently wasting 80-90% of the electricity that they take from the power grids.

Cloud & Heat Technologies GmbH (“Cloud & Heat”) hopes to turn this reputation around, recovering wasted energy from servers. The company is primarily focused on providing cloud-computing services. But, instead of building a large, centralized server farm to crunch their clients’ numbers, they are hoping to distribute this computing power across a large number of commercial buildings – in particular, those with hot water heaters.

The idea is pretty straightforward. First, building owners buy a fireproof safety cabinet full of computer servers. Cloud & Heat installs the cabinet (for about the same total cost as a conventional heating system) and hook it up to the building's air ducting, water system, electricity (3 phase at 400v), and Internet (at least 50 Mbit/s).

These servers are then used for cloud computing applications. During use, they produce heat that is collected using the integrated waste heat recovery system. This heat is then used in the building's hot water and heating systems. Cloud & Heat pays for the Internet connection and the power required to keep the servers running and any legal/insurance requirements for having the computing data onsite. The building owner then gets as much warm air and hot water as the servers in the box can produce, free of charge.

The company is certainly facing challenges including the large number of cabinets that need to be installed in order to replace a centralized server farm. The cabinet takes up space that the homeowners have to be willing to part with and its unclear if computing services would impact homeowner Internet use. Not to mention consumer acceptance on both sides – both those supplying the space (i.e. building owners) and those using the service (i.e. computing service clients).

But, if the company is successful, they could have found a way to significantly improve the efficiency of server farms by turning waste heat into a significant distributed resource.

Photo credit: Photo of Cloud & Heat server cabinet by Cloud & Heat Technologies GmbH