The New York Times (27 November 2011) has an interesting article under “bright ideas” called Turn on the Server. It’s Cold Outside.
The idea in the age of cloud and distributed computing, where physical location of infrastructure is besides the point, is to place (racks of) servers in people’s homes to warm them from the cold.
The idea is really pretty cool and quite intuitive: Rather than use expensive HVAC systems to cool the environment where servers heat up and are housed, instead we can use the heat-generating servers to warm cold houses and save money and resources on buying and running furnaces to heat them.
While some may criticize this idea on security implications–since the servers need to be secured–I think you can easily counter that such a strategy under the right security conditions (some of which are identified in the article–encrypting the data, alarming the racks, and so on) could actually add a level of security by distributing your infrastructure thereby making it less prone to physical disruption by natural disaster or physical attack.
In fact, the whole movement towards consolidation of data centers, should be reevaluated based on such security implications. Would you rather have a primary and backup data center that can be taken out by a targeted missile or other attack for example, or more distributed data centers that can more easily recover. In fact, the move to cloud computing with data housed sort of everywhere and anywhere globally offers the possibility of just such protection and is in a sense the polar opposite of data center consolidation–two opposing tracks, currently being pursued simultaneously.
One major drawback to the idea of distributing servers and using them to heat homes–while offering cost-saings in term of HVAC, it would be very expensive in terms of maintaining those servers at all the homes they reside in.
In general, while it’s not practical to house government data servers in people’s homes, we can learn to run our data centers more environmentally friendly way. For example, the article mentions that Europe is using centralized “district heating” whereby more centralized data center heat is distributed by insulated pipes to neighboring homes and businesses, rather than actually locating the servers in the homes.
Of course, if you can’t heat your homes with data servers, there is another option that gets you away from having to cool down all those hot servers, and that is to locate them in places with cooler year-round temperatures and using the areas natural air temperature for climate control. So if you can’t bring the servers to heat the homes, you can at least house them in cold climates to be cooled naturally. Either way, there is the potential to increase our green footprint and cost-savings.
Running information technology operations with a greater view toward environmental impact and seeing IT in terms of the larger ecosystem that it operates in, necessitates a careful balancing of the mission needs for IT, security, manageability, and recovery as well as potential benefits for greater energy independence, environmental sustainability, and cost savings, and is the type of innovative bigger picture thinking that we can benefit from to break the cycle of inertia and inefficiency that too often confronts us.