Thinking Tech

An innovative data center offers to heat up Paris homes

An innovative data center offers to heat up Paris homes

Posting in Technology

PARIS -- A new take on data servers seeks to offer inexpensive heat and computing to Parisians.

PARIS -- What do crash test simulations, medical vaccines, and Pixar all have in common? They could all be heating your home in the future. A French company called Qarnot Computing is channeling computing power and using its byproduct to warm Parisian homes during the inevitably cold winter.

Computing generates heat -- no surprise to anyone who owns a laptop. Large companies and research industries often rely on external data centers for high-performance computing (HPC) to run simulations or other processes that take time and energy. These centers, essentially warehouses full of digital servers, not only take up physical space, but also require hefty budgets to air-condition them in order to prevent the hardware from malfunctioning.

While data centers require mass amounts of electricity for cooling, some nine million French people are actually lacking energy for heat every year.

The team at Qarnot is rethinking data centers by breaking up the collection of servers and dispersing them into Parisians' homes or other buildings in the form of digital radiators. "The idea was to generate the waste in the only place where it is not a waste -- directly in people's homes," Danuta Pieter, an engineer and partner at Qarnot Computing said.

This new service could provide an enticing alternative to traditional, yet costly data centers while helping bring heat to those who can't afford it.

With nearly 40% of France's data centers located in the crowded and energy-hungry Parisian region, server access is expensive to build and maintain. Electricity has become so scarce that no new centers can be built within 5 kilometers of Paris. While Google, for instance, opened a $273 million center in Finland to cut costs on cooling by opting for a colder climate, Qarnot developed a more innovative approach to the problem.

Heat, the byproduct of computing cycles, can easily emit from Qarnot's radiators when a client taps into the network for some extra processing power. The heaters and clients can connect through the internet, ideally a fiber optic connection. Pieter says that in France, nearly 80% of data center's costs is related to cooling, but by cutting cooling costs essentially to zero, Pieter said Qarnot can offer clients CPU hours for as little as 7% of the standard rate in France.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of their system, Qarnot outfitted two housing projects in Paris this July with their radiators, providing free heat to low-income families. The implementation comes as electricity prices rise five percent this year and next, some of the highest hikes in the last ten years. The heaters have summer modes that allow them to emit as little heat as a normal laptop, meaning that the digital radiators are still viable in warmer weather conditions.

In addition to providing free heating through the radiators, called Qrads, Pieter said that a huge advantage of their system is that they can provide low-cost computing to researchers who otherwise may not have had access to pricier data centers. "We have a model whereby we can give access to public researcher for a cost or even for free," she said. The radiators are meant to operate at 50% capacity, which means that during a slow day or a cold spell when heat is needed, Qarnot can offer computing to low-budget research groups.

This means that scientists looking to map genomes or to develop vaccines could more efficiently create their models by using Qarnot's technology. All they need is an internet connection. Qarnot then sells processing by the minute, allowing small companies to purchase a few hours of processing time for projects that would otherwise take days to complete. Architects, graphic designers, animators, weather forecasters, and various other potential clients could all benefit from such processing power.

Qarnot is working with various clients and is set to have between four 400 and 500 heaters in place by the end of the year, which Pieter said already represents a significant amount of computing. Emails roll in constantly from those interested in using the Qrads, including a desperate tomato farmer seeking an inexpensive way to heat his greenhouse year-round.

While the possibilities are endless, Pieter said Qarnot is taking it little by little before marketing to individuals.

Photo: InterFreePress Facebook servers / Qarnot example of Qrad heaters

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Bryan Pirolli

Correspondent (Paris)

Bryan Pirolli has worked for Conde Nast and Travel+Leisure and has written for EuroCheapo.com and Concierge.com. He holds a degree from New York University and is currently studying at the Sorbonne. He is based in Paris, France. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure