Data centers now consume as much energy globally as the airline industry, and their energy footprint is expected to triple over the next decade.
French startup Qarnot is making more efficient use of some of that energy by taking the heat that servers produce and using it for climate control in homes and offices instead of using more energy to cool off the servers.
The product, Q.rad, offers a distributed server that doubles as a heater and can be placed in any location that has power and Ethernet. It's just a white and black square appliance that hangs on the wall, and features a basic touchscreen control panel. But the real magic happens in Q.rad's backend software where it distributes compute power across servers as needed. When people turn up the thermostat to get more heat—or down to reduce the heat—Q.rad signals the system to handle more (or fewer) computing cycles
The first Q.rad appliances have been deployed since 2014 in Paris. One Q.rad "computing heater" can warm 150-300 square feet with what the company calls "high quality soft heat." Qarnot has deployed them in several hundred homes, which get the heat for free in exchange for their use in Qarnot's computing grid that powers banks, research labs, and 3D animation companies. For the benefit of the homes using Q.rad, the company has designed it like a basic consumer electronics appliance that is as easy to use as a thermostat.
The computing heater could clearly have big implications beyond the first set of Q.rad servers now running in hundreds of Paris apartments. It's easy to imagine companies that still need their own internal servers deploying these throughout an office building. And why not? They would save energy on both sides of the equation. It would cost less and use less energy to heat the office, and it would cost less and use less energy to cool the data center.
If you're worried about the physical security and data privacy of hanging a bunch of servers all throughout the office, don't be. There's no corporate data stored on these boxes. They are pure, raw computing power. The data would still be locked away and stored in a more traditional data center. While many companies are moving more and more of their IT functions out of data centers and into the cloud, the demands of big data analytics is likely to increase the demand for raw computing power in the future. Even if you stored the data in the cloud, you could still likely save money—and get the Q.rad energy benefits—of running your own grid of computing power on-premises.
Q.rad also has 20 embedded environmental sensors, so it's already prepared to be a valuable cog in the smart homes and smart buildings of the future—both of which are also going to demand additional computing power.
SEE: Smart cities: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)
The obvious challenge with Q.rad: What about summer?
You'd still need to run traditional air conditioning in the summer and during the warm spells in spring and fall. This makes Q.rad more useful and appealing in colder climates, which is also generally true of data centers since they kick off so much heat. The question remains what Q.rad does in the summer when less heat needs to be generated—it likely redirects those computing cycles to traditional data centers.
All in all, we can file Q.rad under outstanding ideas whose time has come. Turning the waste stream of data center heat into usable energy makes perfect sense.
Qarnot told TechRepublic that it is currently expanding beyond Paris to the rest of France and is planning a bigger expansion into international markets.
You can get a closer look at Q.rad in the following video:
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Jason Hiner has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.