The cloud uses an awful lot of energy.
In fact, much of that energy is wasted as heat. So in these energy-conscious times, it's probably not a surprise that companies are working on ways to put that energy to use. From rumors that Amazon will heat its new corporate campus using waste from a nearby data center to an underground server farm in Helsinki that pumps heat to nearby apartments and uses sea water for cooling too, most of these schemes have so far been focused on a fairly centralized concept: Build a big server farm, and then design ways to use the heat it generates.
As reported over at IEEE Spectrum and Slate, however, there's at least one German company that's approaching the problem a bit differently. Rather than identifying heating needs nearby a giant data center, they suggest, why not break the data center up into its component parts, distribute it among hundreds or even thousands of households, and then use the excess heat on location for space heating and hot water?
It looks to me that Cloud&Heat has an interesting concept going. The homeowner pays for a Cloud&Heat unit, which costs roughly the same as a comparable heating system. Inside that unit are servers, fans and other technical jiggery pokery (nope, I am not a computer guy), which form part of the virtual cloud and, simultaneously, generate an awful lot of heat. Cloud&Heat's system then pumps that heat to a buffer tank, which can be used to augment space heating and/or warm up water in your water tank. The homeowner pays nothing for the unit's ongoing energy consumption, and maintenance and repair are covered over a 15-year service contract.
There are, of course, some stipulations, and the units are not suitable for every home. Here's what the company FAQ tells us:
A prerequisite for the use of Cloud&Heat is the presence of a buffer tank with a capacity of between 500 L and 2000 L, an Internet connection of at least 50 Mbit/s, a three-phase 400 V power connection and 3 x 16 A (cooker connection box) and a separate meter panel. A centralised air handling system with controlled ventilation and extraction via heat exchangers is advantageous for the use of Cloud&Heat but not a requirement.
And as for the other big feasibility question — security — Cloud&Heat claims that its servers are not just as secure as its centralized counterparts, but more so. Because each unit is locked and encrypted, and because data is distributed across a broad (Germany-only) network, the company claims there's very little vulnerability to hacking. And because homeowners help pay for the hardware, and infrastructural needs are already taken care of, the company says the whole model is decidedly cost effective.
Of course the real proof will be in the long-term reliability of the units. But if Cloud&Heat can keep heating customers happy by warming their homes reliably and economically, and data customers happy by securing their data reliably, securely and economically, then they may just be on to a winning formula.
Here's a little more on Cloud&Heat's pitch:
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