Sea change: Why we need underwater datacenters

Climate change, renewable sources of energy, and pollution have been hot topics of discussion for many years. But amid the talk, what steps are we taking to reduce our carbon footprint in the environment?

Perhaps the first step is to understand the different activities that are spewing out heat and pollution, and consuming enormous amounts of energy. If you’re thinking that transportation and urbanization are the primary activities that cause pollution, you’re only partially right. This is because one of the largest consumers of power is something that is not visible directly. We see cars and airplanes using non-renewable oil, and we see urban centers and buildings taking over fertile farm lands and natural habitat. But do we see datacenters — the backbone of today’s economy — as one of the primary culprits of climate change?

The answer is a definite no, and for many reasons. First, it’s not something that we can relate to, because we don’t see it around us every day. Second, we know it’s absolutely vital to power small, medium, and large enterprises, and almost every major company in the world uses datacenters to handle the enormous amount of digital content that is generated every second. These factors make datacenters the fastest-growing consumers of electricity in the world, and new power plants are being built to meet the needs of these power-guzzling giants.

To give you a perspective: In 2013, U.S. datacenters consumed 91 billion kilowatts of electricity, equal to the output of 34 large coal-based power plants. This consumption is expected to increase to 140 billion kilowatts by 2020, or roughly 50 500-megawatt power plants. Such a huge need for electricity is expected to cost American businesses $13 billion in electricity bills each year, and is likely to emit 100 million metric tons of carbon pollution per year.

Yes, our digital activities handled by datacenters are one of the main consumers of electricity and emitters of pollution.

Now that you know this, what do you plan to do? Cut back on digital activity? Of course not. Digital activity has brought great economic benefits to much of the world’s population. A better solution would be to come up with ideas that would make these datacenters more energy efficient.  Ideally, choosing renewable sources of energy to power these centers, and coming up with innovative ways to reduce pollution, are the way forward.

The good news is that many researchers are working on reducing energy consumption levels of datacenters. Some, like Ben Cutler’s Project Natick team at Microsoft, are looking into the possibility of having datacenters located deep down in the ocean.

Sounds intriguing? Let’s first look at the advantages that come with such an idea.

Microsoft Natick underwater datacenter project

Why undersea datacenters?

Undersea datacenters are being seen as a solution that will overcome the existing problems of land datacenters. The most obvious advantage is lesser pollution and better environmental sustainability.

Undersea datacenters that are being developed now use renewable sources of energy such as wind power. Research shows that offshore winds tend to be stronger than what blows on land, and this can generate considerably more power. Also, tidal waves are being seen as a potential source of renewable energy, though more work is needed in this area before we can tap into it.

Another big advantage is these datacenters are cooled naturally, so no extra power is needed for this process. Data shows that much of the conventional energy consumption goes toward cooling servers and computers, and this cost is practically nonexistent with undersea datacenters. Even in the hottest places, deep ocean waters are cool, so placing these servers deep down can take care of cooling naturally.

All this means less power consumption and lower levels of pollution.

Underwater datacenter being assembledBesides environmental sustainability, here are some more advantages that come with these datacenters.

  • Rapid deployment — Currently, it takes an average of two years to build a conventional datacenter, and with the undersea option, a datacenter could be ready within just 90 days.
  • Better customization — Undersea datacenters can offer great customization for customers, as they are easier to deploy. In fact, it is expected to open up possibilities for providing support to single events such as world cup sporting events. Also, it can be a blessing for coordinating humanitarian efforts.
  • Closer — More than half the world’s population live within 120 miles off a sea coast, so it makes sense to have datacenters close to where we live, as this can result in faster data transmissions and better rate of responsiveness.
  • Less problems — These datacenters are unmanned, so it’s possible to alter chemical processes to counter problems such as corrosion.
  • Longer life — It is estimated that undersea data servers can last up to 10 years because of better conditions.  As a result, the cadence with which we replace datacenters will go down drastically, and this means smaller landfills.
  • Lower costs —  Companies today spend billions of dollars in setting up and maintaining datacenters. This cost can go down with undersea centers, as the operational costs and energy bills will be greatly reduced.

Despite these advantages, undersea datacenters are not without roadblocks. Some of the possible impediments include:

  • Ocean life — When we place a huge piece of equipment in the middle of a sea, we’re obviously intruding into marine life. However, scientists believe that with proper care, we can recycle all the components, thereby leaving the sea as we found it.
  • Noise — Another argument against undersea operations is that it generates noise that in turn can affect the communication patterns of marine life. At the current levels, undersea datacenters may not cause much disruption, but when we start to put servers over a wider area, this is something that has to be looked into.
  • Colonization — Unlike land, objects in the sea can be quickly colonized by sea creatures. If you leave a datacenter on the ocean bed for a year, there’s always a possibility for marine creatures to live on it. Sea plants, algae, and even corals can quickly take over these machines, and this is a factor that needs to be considered, too.
  • Remote monitoring —  Last, we need advanced sensors and IoT applications to monitor or repair these datacenters, as they are unmanned. This problem would also require developments in sensor technology.

Currently, many companies are making rapid progress in addressing these roadblocks and creating the right environment for deploying undersea datacenters.  Project Natick, for example, is actively exploring the possibility of using undersea datacenters.

A brief look at Project Natick

The Natick Team:, left to right: Eric Peterson, Spencer Fowers, Norm Whitaker, Ben Cutler, Jeff Kramer.
The Natick Team, left to right: Eric Peterson, Spencer Fowers, Norm Whitaker, Ben Cutler, Jeff Kramer.

Project Natick is an ongoing research project that is exploring the possibility of using subsea datacenters. It all began with Sean James, a datacenter designer who worked on a submarine in the U.S. Navy before his current role. During his stint in the Navy, he learned a lot about ocean temperatures and conditions, and realized the potential it offers. Armed with such in-depth and firsthand information, he published an internal whitepaper on using undersea datacenters. This is how Project Natick was born.

Microsoft has already deployed a server for 10 months to understand the sea conditions and the possible challenges that can come with it. They are working to address each concern and hope to deploy 10 times more powerful servers for global chains within the next 12 to 18 months.

In short, undersea datacenters come with a lot of advantages such as reduced cost, lower energy consumption, and longer life. At the same time, there are some challenges that come with it, too. Once researchers address these concerns, we can enjoy the benefits that come with these datacenters, not to mention the cleaner environment we can leave behind for posterity.

Photo credit: Microsoft

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3 thoughts on “Sea change: Why we need underwater datacenters”

  1. Yes interesting, but they should be looking to install some servers on the moon, it has the perfect environment. Satellite interfaces and solar to power them. bada-bing!

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