Growing Flowers with Datacenter Heat

The Open Source Grid and Cluster Conference is being held this week in Oakland, California. I attended the first day of the conference before flying home to meet a personal commitment. My favorite talk of the day was Paul Brenner's presentation titled Grid Heating: Dynamic Thermal Allocation via Grid Engine Tools.

Brenner, who works as a scientist in the University of Notre Dame's Center for Research Computing, is exploring innovative ways to exploit the waste heat generated by HPC and other datacenters via partnerships with various municipal entities in the South Bend area. His first prototype, currently in progress, involves placing a rack of HPC compute nodes at a local municipal greenhouse, the South Bend Greenhouse and Botanical Garden.

The greenhouse had recently been forced to close portion of its facility due to high natural gas heating costs. Brenner wondered if he could help. Since current datacenters can be viewed as massive electricity-to-heat converters (with a computational byproduct), it seemed there might be an opportunity to exploit the waste heat in some useful way. But transferring heat, especially low-grade waste heat, over distances is very inefficient. Was there a way to overcome this barrier?

Enter grid computing with its ability to harness remotely located compute resources. If Brenner couldn't transport the heat to the greenhouse, why not place the datacenter at the greenhouse? The garden gets the heat and Notre Dame gets the compute resources via established grid computing capabilities like Sun's Grid Engine distributed resource manager, which is already in use at Notre Dame. Cool idea? Hot idea!

Based on early prototype work which involves placing single rack in the greenhouse, the idea looks like a promising way to reduce natural gas heating requirements for the facility. Brenner has shown he can use grid scheduling software to deliver a desired temperature (within a range, of course) by simply adding or throttling compute jobs on the greenhouse cluster, which communicates with Notre Dame via a wide-area wireless broadband connection.

He has looked at humidity issues and so far they don't seem to be a problem given the ranges supported by typical compute gear. And he points out that while the greenhouse environment does not offer the highly filtered environment of a controlled datacenter, the particulate tolerance for typical compute gear is far in excess of EPA guidelines for people.

Phase II will involve placing three full racks of gear at the greenhouse to significantly reduce heating costs. Notre Dame will pay the electrical costs and use the compute resources. The city saves money on heating.

While the greenhouse is an interesting experiment, it is not ideal since its heating requirements will fluctuate seasonally. There are, however, other installations that have constant heating requirements--for example, hospitals have a 24x7 need for hot water. Sites like this could be interesting for future deployments.

Brenner's full presentation is available [PDF].


Comments:

This is indeed a cool hot topic. 7 years ago or so, I was in a organic gardening presentation in Texas where a greenhouse down in the Austin/San Antonio/TAMU area had large concrete water tanks under the plant support grid. In the tanks were Talapia that ate the algae and run-off from the completely organic fertilizer that was used on the plants. The Sun warmed the water during the day and the thermal mass of the tanks was enough at night to warm the greenhouse. It only works in the appropriate climate band, but I thought it very interesting.

Oh, and BTW, Cydney says hello.

Posted by Mike Stevens on May 15, 2008 at 09:49 AM EDT #

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