How the cloud is being used to heat homes and swimming pools
Cloud Computing

How the cloud is being used to heat homes and swimming pools

Though the metaphor creates the image of something ethereal, the cloud is of course a very physical thing. Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform all run on physical data centres that need electricity and generate lots of heat and often have energy-hungry cooling systems.

Data centres alone now account for around 2% of global energy use – about the same as the aviation industry. If it weren’t for ever-greater efficiencies that figure would be much higher, but with the advent of the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence the amount of energy consumed by compute is still due to increase.

While some of the bigger companies occasionally find novel ways to reuse the heat from their computing operations, these are the exception rather than the rule, and definitely don’t constitute standard practice. However, over the last few years, a new wave of companies are looking to utilise the waste heat from ever-increasing computing demands to heat homes and buildings.

 

Cloud = heat

There are four companies looking to take the cloud, put it in your home or building, and then use the excess heat to warm either the building itself or the water: The Dresden-based Cloud&Heat (previously AOTerra), Dutch startup Nerdalize, as well as two French companies in Qarnot and Stimergy.

Founded in 2010, Qarnot is the oldest of the four. According to Eloïse Emptoz, Strategy & Marketing Manager, the company’s founder Paul Benoit came up with the idea after seeing the amount of energy used while working at a bank which was running risk analysis computations night and day.

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Qarnot’s offering comes in two parts: on the cloud side the company provides pay-as-you-go SaaS and PaaS accessible via a REST API and/or web application at a low price, centred around HPC and batch processing for uses such as Monte Carlo simulations, 3D animation rendering, and movie transcoding. On the consumer-side, the company offers the Q.rad; a ‘computing heater’ which houses all the computing power and heats the home for free, but also offers a smarthome app, mesh Wi-Fi, presence detection and various sensor including air quality monitoring.

Cloud&Heat followed in 2011 – as did a research paper from Microsoft on the concept of a ‘digital furnace’ – with Nerdalize and Stimergy coming in 2013.

Like Qarnot, Stimergy has dual offerings; a ‘digital boiler’ which heats water within the home on the public side – available to housing buildings of at least 20 apartments -  and cloud services centred around disaster-recovery and animation rendering on the business side. The company recently hit the tech headlines after its boiler was used to heat the Butte-aux-Cailles public swimming pool in Paris.

“Our solution has been designed to run all year long without interrupt, as we valorise the heat for water exclusively and dimension our rack to supply buildings to fit their energy need,” says Stimergy’s CEO Christophe Perron. “This enables us to propose a large portfolio of IT services.”

Cloud&Heat came to be, according to CEO Nicolas Röhrs, after founder Dr Fetzer saw how much heat his own data centre at Dresden University of Technology was generating, and wanted to reuse that in his own private home. The company initially offered a similar home-heating system to the other players in this space. But while they saw demand for the heaters, the demand for the cloud side of the business was slow. “In Germany businesses are still sceptical towards public cloud services. However, private cloud usage is increasing.” So, in 2015, this lead to a pivot towards offering a “Datacenter in a Box”; an OpenStack-based managed private cloud solution where the server waste heat is used directly in the office or business premises.

“We are not offering our solution as a ‘heating system’ to private customers but as green cloud solution to business customers. We are offering a complete package consisting of Software, Hardware, and an innovative direct cooling and waste heat recovery system including full management and support.”

So far Qarnot has received $5.47 million in funding – including $2.85 million from data centre giant Data4 last year- with Emptoz saying the company has deployed more than 400 Q.rads; equal to a total of around 5000 cores and representing a 150kW heating capacity, a figure the company hopes to double next year. On the computing side, one of its biggest customers is the French Bank BNP Paribas, while Q.rad users include the RIVP public housing agency and the department of Gironde.

Cloud&Heat has raised $5.32 million in funding so far, and customers include German energy provider Innogy SE, while its own infrastructure will heat local businesses in the Eurotheum building.

Stimergy has received $1.35 million, and has set up 13 digital boilers across seven buildings and will be installing 40 more in the coming year. Customers include Teamto studio, landlord organisation OPAC38 and Nantes Metropole Habitat.

 

Can Cloud heaters replace a whole data centre?

Processing your data in a cloud that actually resides in someone’s house or in the basement of a swimming pool might sound preposterous, but slow down.

The rise of edge computing and micro data centres – both of which are forecast to become billion-dollar markets over the next few years – means companies are starting to get used to the idea that their data might reside not only on-premise and within a cloud data centre, but also beyond those networks. Even the likes of Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure now have edge variants of their core cloud offerings.

But could a company swap its entire data centre infrastructure with a distributed home-heating cloud?

“The answer is yes, but it depends on the company and its needs,” says Stimergy’s Perron, and an answer echoed by both Qarnot and Cloud&Heat. “In any case, we are working to be totally substitutable to standard datacentres for SMEs, which is a good thing for the planet.”

Given the efforts traditional data centres put into security, it’s understandable that businesses might be uncomfortable with the idea of their data being processed in such public or easily accessible places.

Stimergy’s Perron admits that many customers are concerned with security, but the company does its best to allay those fears with security measures such as encryption of data and hard drive and fault-tolerant infrastructure design. Qarnot also features encryption and the digital heater computing nodes are stateless so nothing is actually stored locally.

 

Future of houses

We’re already at an age when cars, fridges, and thermostats come with processing power comparable to your computer. And with the advent of smart homes and smart cities, we’re not far off from a future where meaningful computing power comes embedded into buildings and homes, which could see the idea of every home as a data centre become much more widespread.

“Digital infrastructure will be included in our buildings right from the conception step in the near future,” predicts Qarnot’s Emptoz. “We are deeply convinced that the Building and IT market are meant to merge in the near future.”

“The computing power will become as essential to buildings as water, electricity and heat infrastructure. And as the fireplace constituted the heart of every household since the Stone Age, providing heat, light, security and social cohesion, we believe that the computing infrastructure will constitute the future kernel of our intelligent buildings.”

Stimergy’s Perron adds that as buildings become smarter and more connected “it makes sense” to utilise some of that intelligence for uses beyond that structure’s four walls.

“Stimergy finds an echo in smart cities, where the territory's stakeholders and the companies embrace an innovative and voluntarist approach to change their ways of consuming and recycling energy while having a high requirement level about the computing power they need for their growth.”

Currently all of these startups are working on relatively small scales – although all three have greater expansion plans - and in their current states are unlikely to save the planet. But this could be the start of a slowly moving trend.

As well as making commitments to embrace renewable power, the likes of Amazon, Apple, and IBM have all started projects which reuse data centre heat. But should we put our faith in bringing the concept of reusing wasted heat to a wider market?

“Not especially,” says Qarnot’s Emptoz. “However, all efforts have to be encouraged to ensure a sustainable development of IT infrastructures.”

Cloud&Heat’s Röhrs agrees that big players such as Apple and Google “have not been a crucial factor” in pushing for the reuse of wasted heat, but hopes these smaller companies can have an outsized impact on the market.

“We do hope that our technology makes an impact on future data centre construction and that big players re-think the influence and responsibility for the environment they have.”

 

Also read:
What if every time you used a search engine, you helped the environment?
Mountains, missile silos and churches: Extreme datacentre locations
Turning mountains and fjords into datacentre sites
How to build a datacentre in a war zone
Which companies use 100% Renewable Energy?
Yonomi, Logitech & the future of connected homes
Open versus proprietary: A battleground for smart home systems
Could smart meters drive connected home adoption?

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect. Writes about all manner of tech from driverless cars, AI, and Green IT to Cloudy stuff, security, and IoT. Dislikes autoplay ads/videos and garbage written about 'milliennials'.  

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