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Data Center Operators Look To The Sea For Better Performance, Lower Carbon

Microsoft's Project Natick

Notorious for their massive energy requirements, data center operators began to seek alternate methods of powering the structures more than a decade ago.

While companies like Google and Microsoft have been investigating the efficacy of water-powered data centers for some time, the concept didn’t come to fruition until the recent launch of a seven-megawatt data center created by Nautilus Data Technologies.

Developed to minimize the cost of cooling servers, the Stockton, California-based data center sits perched on the deck of a barge in Stockton’s San Joaquin River and operates without the use of refrigerants, water treatment chemicals, wastewater and water consumption

“Our goal is to transform the data center sector into one that is higher performing, dramatically more sustainable, and more rapidly and equitably able to serve communities, government and businesses globally,” Nautilus CEO James Connaughton said.

An Unsustainable Future

Nautilus’ initiative is an important one for an industry that has witnessed explosive growth in recent years. So much so there are concerns it could become “utterly unsustainable,” according to Connaughton. 

A report by the U.S. Department of Energy estimates the largest data centers can require over 100 megawatts of power capacity, an amount that could power about 80,000 homes across the U.S. The numbers on water consumption are no better.

For scale, a 15-megawatt data center uses 360,000 gallons of water per day; the U.S. data center industry was expected to consume up to 174 billion gallons of water in 2020, according to Data Center Frontier.

While the statistics may seem grim, Nautilus’ success is part of a larger hope for an industry that has struggled with its rapidly growing energy demands and sustainability. As such, several data center operators are beginning to consider the possibility that the sea may offer a solution.

Peak Performance Under The Sea 

While Google was the first to explore the potential of a water-based data center, submitting a patent in 2007, the project was allegedly scrapped due to a lack of fiber connectivity. Nearly 10 years later, Microsoft turned the idea into reality with its Project Natick underwater data center.

The experimental project, Phase 2 of which saw the data center deployed 117 feet deep off the coast of Scotland’s Orkney Islands, was first launched in 2015 to test the performance and server reliability of a sealed container that would lay on the ocean floor.

The Phase 2 vessel remained underwater between 2018 and 2020 and after two years of monitoring, the team found they were successful in more than just performance and reliability.

Issues commonly found on land like corrosion caused by oxygen, humidity and temperature fluctuations were eradicated underwater, as were broken components and equipment failures caused by human impact. This would mean fewer replacement parts and less waste for similar underwater data centers, according to the Project Natick website.

The team chose the Orkney Islands because the power grid runs on 100% wind and solar energy, as well as green energy technologies still under development. This combination would generally be considered unreliable but even under such tough conditions, the data center performed better than expected, leading researchers to consider additional sustainable possibilities such as co-locating future underwater data centers with offshore wind farms

“We have been able to run really well on what most land-based data centers consider an unreliable grid. We are hopeful that we can look at our findings and say maybe we don’t need to have quite as much infrastructure focused on power and reliability,” said Spencer Fowers, principal member of technical staff, Microsoft Research in a Microsoft interview.

Nautilus has witnessed similar achievements. Its Stockton-based data center has so far reduced net power consumption by 30% and managed to connect to an 18-mile, 288-strand redundant fiber ring that links to nearby co-location centers to provide connectivity to local cloud and communication suppliers.

The team has also confirmed its patented water-cooling technology can be used with land-based data centers.

"The thing that surprised and delighted me was that the end product could be very simple, compared to the alternative, and yet so much higher performing,"  Connaughton said. "I would liken it to the difference between an electric vehicle and an internal combustion vehicle. An electric vehicle is just much simpler in its end delivery and resource utilization than the complexity and intensity of an internal combustion vehicle."

Interest Grows In Green Solutions

Now, the technology will be explored in Singapore, where Keppel Data Centres, which invested $10M in Nautilus during a 2017 Series C fundraising round, is in the process of investigating its own environmentally friendly Floating Data Center Park as one of its sustainability initiatives. Much like Nautilus’ Data Center, the FDCP will use seawater rather than potable water to cool the building. It said it anticipates increasing cooling efficiency by up to 80%.

“We are actively tapping the capabilities of the Keppel Group as well as working with industry partners to explore a range of green solutions such as hydrogen, floating data centers and CCUS (carbon capture, utilization and sequestration) technologies,” Keppel Data Centres CEO Wong Wai Meng said.