Data centers could be built underwater in the future

Microsoft has received positive results from ‘Project Natick’, an experiment that ran a data center underwater in the Orkney Islands coast.

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James Sitati
June 1, 2021 2:36 pm

The World Economic Forum estimates that the world will produce 463,000,000,000 GB of data every day by 2025. In a way there is a similarity to data consumption and the problems we have with climate change. We produce gigantic amounts of carbon emissions and we produce gigantic amounts of data. A common belief is that we have been far too late to acknowledge the risks associated with carbon emissions. I hope the same doesn’t happen with data production.

Carbon capture and storage (or carbon capture and sequestration), CCR, is a technology that allows us to ‘capture’ carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in a variety of locations, helping to reduce the impact on climate change. Storage locations that have been considered include:

  • Sending the CO2 to processing plants for industrial uses;
  • Underground as geological storage;
  • Storage centers in the ocean.

Just like with storage of CO2 in the ocean, storage of data in the ocean has stimulated further conversation. How can we make data storage more carbon friendly? Where else can we store data?

Work is underway to power data centers with renewable energy and to use less freshwater resources. Innovations in design has allowed some servers to operate at higher temperatures. This means these data centers don’t have to be constantly cooled by energy guzzling air conditioners. Many companies are also striving to reduce the water footprint of their data centers as more regions fall prey to droughts, reduced rainfall and pressure on our existing water sources. The public are also less forgiving to unsustainable practices. If a data center is using up huge amounts of water to stay cool, the company will be sure to hear about it.

Looking at the success of Microsoft’s Project Natick, it reminds me of how there is still so much untapped potential from renewable energy sources. Our vast oceans can do the job of cooling data centers. What about the sun? Looking at Worldometer, the solar energy striking the Earth is approximately 7,361 times greater than the total energy used globally from non-renewable resources.

We’re also not limited to the Earth when the think about data storage. It’s a good thing that we’re thinking beyond the typical data center locations in a desert in the middle of nowhere. Even space is a consideration. The thinking behind this is that the energy to power it could come from the sun and could be cooled via a combination of stored energy and as it rotates around the Earth. Who knows? In the future we may create data that will boldly go where no server has gone before!

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Murray Hinton
May 31, 2021 5:45 pm

Microsoft’s underwater data center was the size of an average shipping container, containing 864 servers with storage capacity of 27.6 petabytes (or 27.6 million gigabytes). To put this in perspective I remember buying an mp3 player in the early 2000s that had storage capacity of 8MB and I thought that was a lot 😄

The real success of Project Natick is not how much data can be stored in the underwater servers but in the lower failure rate of the servers compared to land-based data. It also shows promise for ‘edge computing’; a term that sounds complicated but really means that the user of data is geographically closer to the source of data.

Being physically closer to the source of data improves performance. This is why Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) are so popular. You may have a website that is hosted in a server located in the United States. If someone from Papua New Guinea tries to load your site, chances are it will be a lot slower for them compared to someone in the US. Distance matters. Simply put, a CDN will store parts of your website in servers located around the world. The origin server will be located in the US, but CDN servers could be located in countries such as Argentina, Germany, Kenya and Indonesia. In this case when a user from Papua New Guinea launches your website, it will communicate with the nearest CDN server, which is in Indonesia. The website will load faster and performance as a whole will be better.

Given that 40% of the world’s population lives within 100km of the coast, underwater data centers located by the coast could provide massive efficiency benefits. For one, IT systems in large companies often have a bad reputation. I hear it all too often. And it’s true. I can’t imagine how much time I would have saved if my work’s IT connection was better. Less frustration, less anger, more work done, and happier me 😜

Niharika Khatri
May 31, 2021 9:28 am

Have you ever travelled to Asia in the summer? Wherever you go air conditioners will be on full blast. It is a necessity to deal with the heat but I always think of the enormous energy usage and carbon footprint from cooling the air. Data centers have to be kept cool as well to prevent servers from overheating. Just like us humans, data centers are commonly cooled using air conditioning and low temperature water.

One problem for land-based data centers is that energy consumption from cooling has to be balanced with operability. For some data centers the energy consumption from cooling can get very high. As such to save energy, cooling is reduced and data centers operate at higher temperatures. The issue is that these data centers may operate at threshold temperatures that are skirting the recommended limits.

Microsoft’s Project Natick has been hailed a success in part because it has greatly reduced this energy requirement to cool the servers. An underwater data center will be cooled by seawater. This is a big win considering approximately one fifth of energy needs from land data centres is used for cooling purposes.

Another success of this underwater project is that it is encouraging innovation in data center design, which is much needed. We are consuming more data as each day passes. Data centers are being built at greater sizes, they are handling more data than ever before, and not all of them are using efficient methods and renewable energy sources. It is predicted that our internet-connected devices will soon produce 3.5% of global emissions, bumping up to 14% by 2040.

Hopefully this is a step toward more efficient, less energy-intensive data storage.

Yufei Yan
June 1, 2021 6:41 pm

In China we have a company called Beijing Highlander Digital Technology that is also creating an underwater data center in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province. Beijing Highlander has seen the success of the Microsoft project and hopes to replicate it. If the 11-month project is successful it will build similar style data centers across China. Their estimate is that seawater can reduce energy consumption by 30%. It will be powered mainly by the urban electricity grid and also from solar, wind and tidal energy.

Another project is an investment of over 1 billion yuan in the island of Hainan, to be a special economic zone encouraging tourism, trade and investment. The project hopes to build 100 underwater data cabins by 2025 to support this island’s goal of being a hi-tech free trade port.

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