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Underwater data centres vulnerable to sound attack, according to research

Written by Wed 22 May 2024

New research indicates that underwater data centres (UDCs) might face unique vulnerabilities, such as interference from loud noises, which do not affect land-based data centres.

Underwater data centres are a creative alternative to traditional land-based data centres, praised for their lower power consumption and enhanced environmental sustainability.

The research conducted by scientists from the University of Florida in the US, and the Univeristy of Electro-Communications in Japan, found UDCs could be significantly disrupted by a ‘sound injection’ attack.

The Science Behind Sound Injection

Acoustic injection has been studied as a method of attack on land-based electronic equipment, including hard disk drives (HDDs), surveillance devices, and personal computers. These attacks utilise the resonant frequency to cause oscillation of a physical structure.

By transmitting acoustic waves at the resonant frequency, the acoustic waves are converted into physical vibrations, disrupting the target system.

Because water is denser than air, sound waves move faster and farther underwater. The study found sound waves propagate through water to induce mechanical vibrations in a solid. For UDCs, this means an acoustic attack can cause unresponsiveness, latency, and overload servers.

The research was conducted in a water tank in a lab and open water on a lake on the University of Florida campus. Using a regular consumer underwater speaker designed for swimming pools at a distance of 20 feet from the UDC, researchers were able to conduct an effective acoustic attack.

First, sound injection directed toward a distributed filesystem can cause unresponsiveness and automatic node removal in just 2.4 minutes of sustained acoustic attack. Second, it can increase latency in a distributed database by up to 92.7%, affecting system reliability. Finally, sound injection can force a redirect of up to 74% of resources to a single server, overloading the target. Some hard drives can even be permanently damaged or fully destroyed as a result of an acoustic attack.

“The main advantages of having a data centre underwater are the free cooling and the isolation from variable environments on land,” said Md Jahidul Islam, Ph.D., Professor, and Co-author of the paper.

However, Islam said these advantages can also become liabilities because the dense water carries acoustic signals faster than in the air, and the isolated data centre is difficult to monitor or to service if components break.

Defence Fails Testing

The research was intended to help owners and operators of UDCs protect their facilities against acoustic injection attacks. To that end, they tested several different defensive methods. First, they tried soundproof panels but found that these raised the temperature of servers too high, counteracting the primary benefit of UDCs, underwater cooling. Then they tried active noise cancellation (the technology that works for noise-cancelling headphones) but found it to be cumbersome and expensive.

The best option tested by the researchers was a software solution – an algorithm, developed with the assistance of machine learning, which identifies acoustic disruption and reallocates resources before the attack crashes the system.

Researches wrote this work aims to help manufacturers protect UDC against acoustic injection attacks and ensure the security of subsea computing infrastructures.

In November, underwater data centre company, Beijing Highlander, successfully installed a core data module on the seabed off Hainan Island in China, marking a step towards the world’s first commercial data centre.

It was reported that the core data module weighs 1,300 metric tons and is submerged 30 metres underwater. The system can process more than 4 million high-definition images in 30 seconds. This is a capacity equivalent to 60,000 traditional computers working simultaneously.

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Written by Wed 22 May 2024

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