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Cloud providers take the plunge with underwater data centers

Chia-Han Lee, Taipei; Vyra Wu, DIGITIMES Asia 0

Credit: TeleGeography

The data center capacity for major cloud providers is expected to nearly triple in the next six years, according to Synergy Research Group.

In 2018, Microsoft initiated the second phase of Project Natick, submerging the Northern Isles data center, a capsule-shaped facility housing 864 servers, about 36 meters deep in the northeast sea off the UK coast. The initiative aimed to harness the cooling properties of seawater, cut costs, mitigate natural disasters, and tap into tidal and offshore wind power for energy.

The sealed underwater placement provided advantages such as proximity to coastal areas. The move reduced data transfer latency and ensured a more stable network for high-computational tasks like gaming and video streaming.

Following a successful two-year submersion, Microsoft raised the Northern Isles data center, boasting a failure rate of only 1/8th of traditional land-based centers. The US Department of Energy recognized Project Natick, proposing that ocean energy, combined with storage and other renewables, could become a viable power source for data centers.

Microsoft is currently exploring integrating underwater data centers with offshore wind power. The company is also considering underwater fiber optic cables for enhanced data transmission.

Subsea data cables carry nearly 99% of intercontinental internet traffic. There are over 550 active or planned submarine cables spanning over 1.4 million kilometers, according to TeleGeography.

China deployed the world's inaugural commercial underwater data center, weighing 1300 tons with the power of 6 million PCs, off the coast of Sanya city on Hainan Island in the south of the country. This installation alone is expected to save 122 million kilowatt-hours of electricity.

China has ongoing projects for constructing underwater data centers in both the Yangtze River Delta. There are also active projects in the country's Pearl River Delta region.

Despite the potential benefits, underwater data centers pose challenges. Underwater data center maintenance and repairs are more complex due to the deep-sea location, requiring designs to account for ocean currents.

Connectivity to renewable energy sources like offshore wind and tidal power holds promise but is subject to seasonal weather and tidal variations. Issues such as obtaining permits, potential environmental impacts, and connectivity between underwater and land-based data centers remain concerns.

While underwater data centers promise energy efficiency, a reduced carbon footprint, and enhanced performance, the industry confronts obstacles, including intricate design considerations, and elevated connectivity costs. As Microsoft and China, venture into the sector, the future of underwater data centers looks bright.

The industry's ability to overcome the challenges will be pivotal for widespread adoption and success. Big tech and increasingly tense geopolitical situations are turning undersea cables into economic and strategic assets.