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  • Jessica Zimmer

The obligations that come with underwater data centers


Microsoft's Project Natick underwater data center deployment in 2018. Credit: Microsoft

As Microsoft, Subsea Cloud, and Beijing Highlander evaluate the efficiency of underwater data centers, their actions raise new questions about what the global community and legislators should know about the technology. In the past decade, the producers of underwater data centers have applauded them for the following reasons:


  • many underwater locations for centers are close to the coastal or riverside populations they will serve

  • sealed centers are protected from corrosion caused by oxygen and humidity. These concerns particularly plague cities close to the water.

  • underwater centers are naturally cooled by the water surrounding them

  • the noise of the servers’ fans is dulled by the water and

  • the servers appear to only heat the water several inches away from the center’s location.


Placing data centers underwater greatly reduces the technology’s carbon footprint. Manufacturers do not need to expend additional energy, time, and water cooling the centers or reducing noise generated by them. Yet underwater centers also have disadvantages, including:


  • the centers are relatively inaccessible if a server within the center fails or needs repair. This can lower the center’s capacity.

  • the centers can be impossible or difficult to maintain

  • the centers could leak toxic materials or heavy metals if they get damaged and

  • the centers are hard to protect in the event of a natural disaster or if the wreck of a vessel reaches them.


As companies are testing out single data centers, they have not yet addressed concerns that will arise if multiple data centers are sunk, especially close together. It will become necessary to track the centers’ deployment locations and evaluate the related impacts. The manufacturers should also track how much the centers shift, the cause of the shifts, and the extent to which the shifts affect how quickly data reaches users.


In comparing the pros and cons of underwater data centers, manufacturers should:


  • track how one or more centers, especially centers sunk close together, affect the temperature of the water and the diversity and interactions of marine life

  • be obligated to produce regular reports that monitor the effects of the center and disclose these to the media and the general public

  • be required to remediate any negative effects of the centers on the natural environment and wildlife and

  • disclose the cost of retrieval and reuse or junking of the data centers.


Further, companies should also be precluded from sinking data centers underwater in particularly sensitive ecological areas. Examples include spots where there are one or more endangered species. The public and legislators may be interested in limiting the number of data centers that can be sunk in a certain area or body of water. Companies should also be obligated to show how they would keep data centers underwater if the centers are sunk into a river or lake and drought or extreme tides lowers the level of the water.

The use of underwater data centers is limited to where companies can place them. This means not all rivers, lakes, and coastlines are suitable locations. Some sites are more ecologically sensitive, more vulnerable to extreme events, more difficult to access, or smaller in size.


One of the most significant questions about underwater data centers is the extent to which they would raise the temperature of water surrounding them. Scientific research has shown the effects of increasing the temperature of water a few degrees include:


 

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