Will your next data center be located underwater?
Probably not, but some companies think it should be. Interest in underwater data centers is growing in the wake of Microsoft's successful deployment of Project Natick several years ago.
On the other hand, there remain a number of barriers to underwater data centers, and reasonable people might contend that deploying servers under the sea will never be practical at scale.
Here's a look at why underwater data centers have gained popularity, which benefits they offer and why they may or may not ever prove realistic.
What is an underwater data center?
An underwater data center is exactly what it sounds like – a data center immersed in a body of water.
The concept behind underwater data centers is simple enough: You take IT infrastructure (like servers and storage media), install them in a water-tight vessel and then submerge it under the water. This is precisely what Microsoft did with Project Natick, an underwater data center that it launched off the coast of Scotland in 2018.
What are the benefits of underwater data centers?
There are a number of reasons why you might want to deploy a data center under the water:
Abundant real estate
With oceans covering about 70 percent of the Earth's surface, there is no shortage of locations for deploying underwater data centers.
Underwater deployment could prove especially valuable in settings where companies want to operate data centers close to major population centers, where undeveloped land is in short supply but where data centers could be dropped just offshore.
Low cooling costs
Cooling methods for traditional data centers are expensive and require a lot of energy. An underwater data center, however, can dissipate its heat directly into the surrounding environment in an ultra-efficient way.
Sustainable energy sourcing
Although Project Natick sourced its energy from a land-based electrical grid, underwater data centers could potentially take advantage of offshore renewable power sources, such as wind farms. They could even theoretically generate their own energy using ocean currents, setting a new standard for data center sustainability.
Why underwater data centers may never take off
These are all powerful benefits that the data center industry could potentially unlock by deploying more data centers under the water.
However, to become practical at scale, underwater data centers would need to overcome some steep challenges, including:
- Hardware maintenance: Probably the biggest challenge of underwater data centers is maintaining hardware. When a server or disk drive needs to be replaced, sending personnel underwater to do the work – or hauling the data center to the surface – is exponentially more difficult than with land-based data centers. Robotic automation could help mitigate this challenge, but until that technology matures, most data center maintenance will still need to be handled by humans.
- Network connectivity: The only feasible way to ensure high-performance network connectivity for underwater data centers is to connect them to network cables. That's doable but expensive, especially for underwater data centers located far from the shore.
- Physical security: In some respects, underwater data centers are super-secure against physical intruders, because it would be exceptionally difficult for trespassers to break into them unnoticed. On the other hand, underwater data centers could be prone to attacks by terrorists or nation-state actors, who are likely to find it easier to target a facility located at the bottom of the sea than one on defensible dry territory.
- Energy sourcing: While sourcing energy from renewable offshore sources is attractive, these sources aren't always reliable. Offshore wind farms stop working on calm days, for example, and ocean currents may shift, idling generators that depend on them. Underwater data center engineers would need to develop backup power sources to make these data centers reliable.
It's probably because of these challenges that underwater data centers remain a much-discussed but little-implemented idea. Project Natick has made a lot of headlines, but it has been three years since Microsoft hauled it out of the ocean, and there has been no further development of the project to date.
The company that solves these challenges in order to make underwater data centers practical at scale stands to profit enormously. But the barriers are high, and it's an unsure bet whether production-ready underwater data centers will ever come to fruition.