Underwater datacentres: Is the industry at risk of sweeping its climate problems into the sea?

In this guest post, Jake Madders, co-founder of enterprise cloud provider Hyve Managed Hosting, explores the possible environmental impacts of relying on underwater datacentres

In the summer of 2020, while the pandemic was dominating headlines around the globe, marine specialists were busy reeling up something that looked like an algae-covered, barnacle-ridden shipping container of the seafloor just off Scotland’s Orkney Islands. Ostensibly just a bit of harmless flotsam, it was actually the final phase of Microsoft’s two-year experiment to see if the concept of underwater datacentres was feasible.

Underwater data centres have been a hotly debated topic for a number of years now. Like any ambitious technology project, it has its champions and detractors, but Microsoft’s experiment proved that, at least as a concept, it works. In fact, the more you think about it, the more keeping a data centre in a sealed container on the seabed seems to make sense. There’s no corrosion from oxygen or humidity, there are no fluctuations in temperature, and there’s no need for expensive cooling equipment. It’s also affordable as there’s not much competition for real estate at the bottom of the ocean.

However, what’s striking about the adoption of underwater datacentres is that they’ve been hailed as a more environmentally sustainable solution when compared to their land-based counterparts. They can be deployed much faster, they require less energy because they don’t need to be cooled, and they can tap into renewable energy like wind and solar with greater ease. Even Microsoft itself frames underwater data centres as a sustainability strategy first and foremost. But what if it’s not?

Underwater datacentres: how green are they?

Much has been said about how much greener underwater datacentres are, and there’s no doubt that there are inherent advantages. But as we’ve learned over the past few decades, our climate is incredibly volatile and almost karmic in the way it gives and takes away based on the balance of our approach. Just because a strategy is greener in one respect, such as being cheaper to run or requiring less fuel, does not necessarily make it an unalloyed good, does it?

While underwater data centres might be greener than their land-based counterparts by several popular metrics, what about the aspects that often get brushed aside? Are we thinking about biodiversity? What will happen to the temperature of the earth’s oceans if we line the seabed with data centres? Should we think more carefully about the potentially negative side effects of moving our data storage underwater? Many questions still need answering.

For instance, no studies appear to have been carried out yet to determine whether the heat waste going into the sea from underwater datacentres is more or less harmful than the climate-related damage caused by CO2 emissions from land-based facilities. If the answer is more, then underwater datacentres could be a misstep in our efforts to combat the climate crisis.
Then there’s the question of what happens once datacentres fail, outlive their usefulness or are otherwise taken offline. The current plan is to run salvage-type operations once every five years to pluck any retired datacentres out of the ocean, but this disposable approach is far from green. So what’s the answer? Are underwater data centres truly viable and sustainable?
Location is key
When it comes to the most sustainable and efficient datacentres, it’s clear that location is going to play a major factor. All things considered, the Nordic regions are probably the most sustainable location for on-land datacentres. Server farm operators in Iceland already use geothermal power from hot springs and have excess access to ambient cold air which is pumped into the centre using fans – this makes it the perfect place to house on-land servers. Using water from cold water glaciers and lakes to maintain power year- round, the natural heat from the Earth is re-used effectively.

Of course, on-land datacentres based in say, Los Angeles, are incredibly inefficient due to the hot climate and need for high-level cooling systems. But not all on-land facilities should be tarnished with the same brush.

Underwater datacentres are an unknown venture when used at scale – we just don’t know what impact they may have on our oceans and sea life. With sustainable on-land centres already in-place, we should be looking at tried and tested solutions that effectively use green energy and natural environments to lower the impact of datacentres as much as possible.

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