A few weeks ago, I came across an interesting company that offers a product that sounds like a bad idea on the surface. Subsea Cloud offers data center services, but with an interesting twist: the data center lives under the waves. For most people, the closest water comes to computers is when a cat dashes by on the table and pours your drink into your laptop’s keyboard, causing obvious problems (especially if it’s a sugary drink). But, like EV batteries and combustion engines, liquid cooling can be very useful for computers, especially for high-performance computers.
That cooling is needed because computers generate a lot of heat when they work. Put a whole bunch of high-performance computers in one place, and that’s a lot of heat to extract to keep them from overheating. Like any kind of cooling and air conditioning, that requires a lot of electricity to do things like run a refrigerant compressor, pump water in and out of radiators, turn on fans, and many other things. This makes the environmental impact of cloud computing, popular websites, and other uses for data centers pretty big.
Using natural cool water to cool a computer off isn’t a new concept at all. I remember 20 years ago reading about overclockers (people who make their computer chips run faster than designed for better performance) pumping ground water through a liquid coolant system, and then pumping the water back into the ground. Because the ground water had a very consistent temperature, it could cool off some very aggressively overclocked computers without any problems.
Microsoft’s Experiment With This
In 2020, Microsoft took this idea to a whole other level:
They built a big tube with closed ends, not unlike a torpedo or a submarine, and placed a whole data center’s worth of servers inside. They evacuated all of the oxygen and moisture from the tube, both things that frequently lead to computer hardware failures on land. They then sealed the tube up, ran some wires to it to feed electricity and data in and out, and basically dumped it in the ocean.
The great thing about having these computers in the ocean is that the water surrounding the data center maintains a steady temperature. The heat from the data center gets absorbed by the ocean water, so the computer chips can also stay at a steady temperature without using a bunch of electricity to feed cooling systems. Because the whole servers are always at a steady temperature, they don’t expand and contract unevenly, and that further reduces computer hardware failures.
What Microsoft found was that its data center was far more reliable than an identical data center kept on land to serve as a control for the experiment. It required far less electricity, and thus had a much lower environmental impact. It was also a lot faster to deploy, as they didn’t have to build everything a typical data center has, purchase land or building space, or do any of those things.
When it came time to end the experiment, they pulled the data center up from the ocean floor to see how it would go to make upgrades and recycle the center at the end of its usable life. They found that it wasn’t any different in regards to recycling, and possibly easier.
Subsea Cloud Is Doing This Commercially Now
The Microsoft underwater data center was just an experiment, but now underwater data centers are available for companies to buy.
On top of the advantages that Microsoft identified, Subsea Cloud figured out that it could place the data centers in the ocean near major coastal cities. This makes for much lower latency, because data centers usually get built further from the city where land and electricity is cheaper and more readily available. Because nobody’s trying to sell the ocean floor, it’s a lot cheaper. Full-scale pods take about 12 weeks to assemble and deploy, which is a lot faster than a normal data center.
When customers need a second or third or subsequent data center, this solution is also a superior choice. A company can get another one with just three months’ notice, and it can be located right next to the others. This gives the same latency benefits, both between data centers that need to work together and for connections to users.
They’ve also run the numbers and found that their underwater data centers emit 750 tons less CO2 per year, per pod than a comparable land-based data center. This means companies seeking carbon neutrality have less work to do. There’s also a great advantage in terms of water use, as the data centers are already surrounded by water. On land, fresh water sources that we need for farming, drinking, and industry have to be used by data centers. This is an especially important advantage in areas facing water shortages.
Finally, this solution helps companies deal with data residency laws. In a growing number of countries, residents’ data is required by law to be stored within the territory of the country to avoid misuse by foreign entities, spying, and other geopolitical and privacy concerns. These data centers can be deployed within the territorial waters of any country with a coastline.
Limitations & Challenges
The obvious limitation for this technology is that it’s ocean-based. Landlocked countries, inland cities, and places with limited coastal areas are not going to be able to take full advantage of this technology. Plus, as it proliferates, room near the coast to submerge these data centers is going to become a concern that will lead to government regulations and possibly fees and taxes that could reduce the benefits.
Another issue is that the ocean is not infinite in its capacity to absorb heat. We once thought that the exhaust from automobiles was minuscule compared to Earth’s atmosphere, but put enough of them in a tight area (like a city or metro area), and the emissions stack up to bad things. I don’t have any idea how many of these things it would take to start harming life in the ocean, but there is probably a point where pumping that much heat into the water near the coasts will cause environmental problems.
Regardless, it’s definitely a good thing to do today on a smaller scale, as it’s far less harmful to both land and ocean life to use far less electricity.
Featured image: a screenshot from Microsoft’s video (embedded above).
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