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Commercial underwater data centre to launch this year

Written by Wed 26 May 2021

100 separate vessels to operate underwater near Hunan Free Port

Following the successful deployment and retrieval of a prototype, Beijing Highlander has announced that they will build the first commercial underwater data centre. It will comprise 100 separate vessels and after construction, and be operated by ISP Beijing Sinnet.

Each pressure container will contain 100 server racks, and will be sunk on the sea bed near the Hainan Free Trade Port. They will be connected through a combined power and internet cable, and the equipment will be cooled using seawater. Additionally, there is a possibility that the company will leverage its proximity to the Changjiang nuclear power center to become carbon-neutral as well.

Not only are underwater data centres attractive investments because of a reduced environmental impact – they can also significantly lower the costs of operating a data centre compared to land. For example, 70% of a Chinese data centre operating costs are attributed to power, much of which is used for cooling. With seawater cooling systems, the reduction in operating costs may help to offset the initial investment in constructing an underwater system.

The project’s location at the Hainan Free Trade Port may make it an even more attractive investment. The port was built under the concept that it would be zero tariff, with low corporate and personal income taxes to attract businesses and highly-skilled labor and foreign investments.

The Chinese State Assets Supervision and Administrative Commission (SASAC) will oversee the project to ensure timeliness.

A successful proof-of-concept for an underwater data centre was achieved by Microsoft, under the name Project Natick. After two years submerged in the sea near Orkney, in Scotland, Microsoft retrieved their container and declared the project was economically, logistically, and environmentally sound.

Microsoft did patent the idea of a “data reef”, where a number of vessels could be joined together on the ocean floor to create a full-fledged underwater data centre. However, the tech giant also released several of its undersea patents as part of the HPE Low-Carbon Pledge announced on Earth Day.

The underwater data centre at Hainan Free Trade Port will be built in three separate phases. This year, Beijing Highlander will construct five vessels; with 45 to follow next year, and the final 50 in 2024 to 2025. And if the project is successful, it may be replicated on an even larger scale.

Beijing Highlander launched a trial in January of this year, and after measuring water temperature, storm impact, and operational data declared it was a viable commercial option. Leading companies, likely including Lenovo and Hainan Telecom, will be invited to run demos on the equipment prior to its official launch when phase one is completed.

While the response has largely been positive, and the results of the prototype were solid, there are some concerns about whether it will be economically viable in the long run. Chinese IT consultant Yang Zhiyong told Reuters, “I’m skeptical about its profitability,” citing his concern over whether the savings in operational costs could offset the potentially large investment to construct and launch the new project.

Written by Wed 26 May 2021

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