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The internet… underwater?

By Bruno Citoni

Many are unaware of the environmental issues data centres create but placing them underwater may just be the solution.

Water-cooled computers are nothing new to your friendly neighbourhood techy, but Microsoft has gone one step further with their Project Natick which entered its final phase this July.

Two years ago, Microsoft sank a 40-foot-long cylinder 117 feet deep off the coast of Scotland’s Orkney Islands. Within it was 864 servers, making it the first data centre of such a size to be deployed underwater.

Back in 2015, phase one of the project saw a smaller vessel being placed just one kilometre off the Pacific coast of the United States and operating for 105 days. Phase two, which ended this summer with the retrieval of the sealed tube, demonstrated the viability of manufacturing, deploying, and operating undersea data centres in a timely and reliable fashion. Phase three involves data analysis and recycling of all the materials. It has been noted that the failure rate compares very well to conventional data centres built with the same components. Only 1/8th of the servers failed in the underwater data centre, compared to its land-based equivalent.

But it’s not just efficiency that has driven the project forward. If you look up images of data centres online, you are presented with a slew of almost identical pictures: big windowless rooms filled with floor-to-ceiling racks of computers running 24/7. These are what we call servers. They are just like computers but do not need external hardware, though require constant access to the internet, power, and cooling. All the data you consume online is stored on servers contained in data centres scattered around the globe.

However, the real crime being committed is not the one against aesthetics and diversity, but one against the environment. Despite a gradual improvement of energy efficiency, the most conservative estimate still assumes data centres around the globe to be responsible for at least 1% of the world’s total energy consumption, with others speculating this value might be closer to 3%. Either way, increased dependence on the internet and cloud services means that this percentage is only bound to increase. This power is primarily used by data centres in two ways: firstly, to operate the computer hardware itself, and to keep the hardware and its environment cool.

Given the intensity of the constant operations performed, servers generate a lot of heat. Think the kind of heat that your laptop generates if you are watching Netflix in bed on a duvet, but it’s 24/7. Somewhere around 38-43% of the total energy used by a data centre is solely dedicated to this purpose. To avoid failures and operate reliably, both the servers and data centres themselves are heavily controlled environments, kept cool with expensive and complicated systems, involving techniques such as air filtration and liquid and gas cooling.

The outcome of phase two of Project Natick not only demonstrated an economically viable alternative to land-based data centres, but also an environmentally sound one. Because of the cool water, the sunk tube did not require as much cooling as a land-based data centre, employing some of the same cooling technology of submarines. This not only allows for a future where data centres avoid using freshwater resources that can be vital to communities but also has allowed the centre to run entirely off the grid power of the Orkney Islands, which in turn is 100% provided by renewable sources.

Removing the human element from the data-centre environment also proved beneficial. In the first place, it minimised the human error factor: people bumping into racks, potentially unplugging things and generally being a nuisance. Secondly, the environment of the data centre can do without being human-friendly and rather be designed and optimised for computers and machines (with a nitrogen atmosphere rather than oxygen for example). All of these improve performance, making the environment more easily controlled, and less prone to failures. Overall, while data centres are not going to immediately go the way of the plankton, Microsoft has shown the world that a better, greener alternative is possible – and more importantly to the big tech companies, that it’s worth the money.


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