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Under the sea, under the sea

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‘Darling it’s better down where it’s wetter, take it from me’ – Sebastian the crab, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, ‘Under the Sea’, 1990. What on Earth were we watching (and singing along to) in our youth? Good grief.

But Sebastian the crab has a point. The underwater data centre splashed onto the scene as early as 2014, with Microsoft leading the charge when it deployed Project Natick 117 feet under the sea somewhere off Scotland’s Orkney islands back in 2018.

For the next two year’s Microsoft monitored and tested the performance and reliability of this underwater data centre, concluding that they are as ‘reliable as they are practical’.

Which is why I was a little confused to read an article from Reuters, that stated China is now also looking to the sea to help cut the cost of cooling its data centres, as well as the consumption of traditional energy sources. Although I imagine this is entirely for financial gain as opposed to helping the planet.

But with power cost representing, and having always represented, up to 70% of operational costs, why only now are these guys looking to implement what is essentially free cooling?

Work has now begun on the southern island province of Hainan, where plans to construct the world’s first undersea commercial data centre are underway – with completion expected sometime within the next five years.

Yet it would seem that despite the confidence of the likes of Microsoft, China is sceptical when it comes to return on investment and the reliability of such undersea facilities.

“Although power expenses might be lower than land-based data centres, the one-off investment at the beginning could be massive,” said Yang Zhiyong, an analyst at CCID Consulting, a state-backed IT consultancy. “I’m sceptical about its profitability.”

“The technology for subsea data centres is not mature yet,” Yang said. “I’m afraid internet clients would probably not come to it first, as their major concern is the safety and stability of the data infrastructure.”

So, although Microsoft lowered a non-commercial data centre the size of a truck about 35 metres deep with great success, and despite the Hainan data centre not being nearly as big (with just 100 data cabinets) the Chinese just aren’t convinced.

I always thought these guys were well ahead of the curve when it came to tech, but it would appear there is a little scepticism in all of us, no matter who is telling you otherwise.

This editorial originally appeared in the Data Centre Review Newsletter May 28, 2021. To ensure you receive these editorials direct to your inbox, you can subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

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