Meet the cloud that will keep you warm at night

A company called AoTerra is doing very well indeed on the German crowdfunding platform Seedmatch. At the start of this month it broke the record for the most crowdfunding received so far by a German startup, leading Seedmatch to raise the limit on its round (investors get a share of the startup’s profits) from €500,000 ($648,000) to €750,000. The limit may have to be lifted again as AoTerra hit it minutes ago, and it still has 24 days to go.

So what makes Dresden-based AoTerra such hot property? The fact that it does just that: heats properties. And these are no ordinary heaters. These are heating systems with servers inside them.

AoHeat ServerAoTerra’s system comprises a server unit connected to a heat exchanger or heat pump, which is in turn connected to the property’s ventilation system, and a hot water tank. It’s intended for new-build and renovated properties that meet modern energy efficiency standards and, according to the company, efficiency is nearly 100 percent (the company also only uses “green” energy for its devices).

Each system has a broadband connection and forms part of a distributed, OpenStack-based data center. The result is AoCloud, which offers compute, block storage and object storage (all are currently in beta). Customers can be pretty sure their cloud is as green as it gets, but there are other benefits too – the distributed nature of the cloud could mean low latency, and AoTerra is touting security as a plus, too.

AoTerra is also involved with a couple of Europe-funded projects, namely LEADS (trying to create a “data-as-a-service” model on top of geographically distributed micro-clouds) and ParaDIME (trying to making computing more energy-efficient).

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the idea of using waste heat from data centers to heat homes — London’s Telehouse West data center was going to do that, although the local council never set up the distribution network and the housing development never got built due to the recession. Telus is planning something similar in Vancouver. But those were about data centers heating nearby developments; what AoTerra has come up with is a step beyond.

AoTerra TeamProperty owners or developers pay €12,000 for the system (about the same as a normal heating system), but they don’t have any ongoing operating costs – from that point on, they get free heating and hot water. And AoTerra gets out of having to pay for air conditioning, which is a pretty major chunk of the cost of running a traditional data center.

Overall, AoTerra claims, its distributed data center costs the company about a tenth of the normal set-up costs for a data center, with its running costs being less than half and CO2 emissions around a third. The company has only been going for a year, and it already has 20 AoHeat devices with over 200 servers installed. It had a turnover last year of €100,000, and has already signed contracts worth €400,000 this year.

AoTerra says it’s negotiating €1.6 million worth of contracts at the moment, and has another €3.1 million worth in the pipeline. This year it wants to sell 100 AoHeat devices, and next year 500 – at that point, it would be one of Germany’s biggest cloud providers. They need the crowdfunding investment to grow the team to match demand, they say.

I’ve yet to see one of these units in action, but the pitch is intriguing to say the least.