Underwater Data Centers Could Be A Great Way To Lower Environmental Impacts

A few weeks ago I came across an interesting company offering a product that on the surface sounds like a bad idea. Subsea Cloud offers data center services, but with an interesting twist: the data center lives under the waves. For most people, the closest thing to computers is water when a cat comes up to 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 internal combustion engines, liquid cooling can be very useful for computers, especially high-performance computers.

This cooling is necessary 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 that needs to be dissipated to keep them from overheating. Like any type of refrigeration and air conditioning, this requires a lot of electricity to do things like run a refrigerant compressor, pump water in and out of radiators, spin fans, and many other things. This makes the environmental impact of cloud computing, popular websites and other data center applications quite large.

Using natural cool water to cool down a computer is not a new concept at all. I remember reading 20 years ago about overclockers (people running their computer chips faster than they were designed for better performance) pumping groundwater through a liquid coolant system and then pumping the water back into the ground. Since the groundwater had a very constant temperature, it could easily cool down some very heavily overclocked computers.

Microsoft’s experiment with it

In 2020, Microsoft took this idea to a whole other level:

They built a large closed-ended tube, not unlike a torpedo or a submarine, and placed an entire data center’s servers inside. They evacuated all oxygen and moisture from the tube, both things that often lead to computer hardware failures on land. Then they sealed the tube, ran some wires to get power and data in and out, and basically dumped it in the ocean.

The great thing about having these computers in the sea is that the water around the data center maintains a constant temperature. The heat from the data center is absorbed by the seawater, which also allows the computer chips to stay at a constant temperature without using a lot of electricity to power cooling systems. Since the entire servers are always at a constant temperature, they do not expand and contract unevenly, further reducing computer hardware failures.

What Microsoft found was that its data center was far more reliable than an identical data center used as a control for the experiment on land. It required much less electricity and thus had a much lower environmental impact. It was also much quicker to deploy because they didn’t have to build everything a typical data center has, buy land or building space, or do anything else.

When it came time to end the experiment, they pulled the data center up from the sea floor to see what would happen next to make upgrades and recycle the center at the end of its useful life. They found it was no different, and possibly easier, in terms of recycling.

Subsea Cloud is now doing this commercially

Microsoft’s underwater data center was just an experiment, but now companies can buy underwater data centers.

In addition to the benefits Microsoft identified, Subsea Cloud found that it could place the data centers at sea near major coastal cities. This results in much lower latency as data centers are typically built farther from the city where land and electricity are cheaper and more readily available. Because no one is trying to sell the seabed, it’s a lot cheaper. It takes about 12 weeks to assemble and deploy complete pods, which is much faster than a regular data center.

If customers need a second, third or additional data center, this solution is also an excellent choice. A company can get another one with as little as three months’ notice, and it can be located right next to the others. This offers the same latency benefits both between data centers that need to work together and for connections to users.

They also checked the numbers and found that their underwater data centers emit 750 tons less CO2 per pod per year than a comparable land-based data center. This means that companies aiming for carbon neutrality have less work to do. There is also a major advantage in terms of water consumption, since the data centers are already surrounded by water. On land, freshwater sources that we need for farming, drinking, and industry must be used by data centers. This is a particularly important advantage in areas with water scarcity.

Finally, this solution helps businesses deal with data retention laws. In a growing number of countries, it is a legal requirement that residents’ data be stored within the country’s territory to prevent abuse by foreign companies, espionage and other geopolitical and privacy concerns. These data centers can be deployed in the territorial waters of any country with a coastline.

Limitations & Challenges

The obvious limitation for this technology is that it is ocean based. Landlocked countries, inland cities and places with limited coastal areas will not be able to take full advantage of this technology. Also, space offshore to flood these data centers will become an issue as it spreads, leading to government regulations and potentially fees and taxes that could erode the benefits.

Another problem is that the ocean is not infinite in its ability to absorb heat. We once thought that car exhaust fumes are tiny compared to Earth’s atmosphere, but if we place enough of them in a confined area (like a city or subway area), the emissions stack up into bad things. I have no idea how many of these things it would take to harm ocean life, but there probably comes a point where pumping that much heat into the water near shore will cause environmental problems.

Regardless, doing this on a smaller scale today is definitely a good thing, as using far less electricity is far less harmful to both land and sea life.

Featured image: a screenshot from Microsoft’s video (embedded above).


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