A New Frontier in Sustainable Data Center Design

By Tom Elowson, Data Center Specialist on July 17, 2018
Tom Elowson
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A few weeks ago, we wrote an article on efficient data centers highlighting the fact that, if the IT sector as a whole were a country, it would come in third behind China and the U.S. in total energy consumption. To help us stay connected across our social networks, process our online purchases, display our search results, or send us the latest news, “global data centers used roughly 416 terawatts of electricity (or about 3% of the total electricity) last year,” Forbes reports, which is “nearly 40% more than the entire United Kingdom. And this consumption will double every four years.”

Were it not for industry initiatives to power data centers in ever more efficient and sustainable ways, our modern digital lives would come at a steep penalty for the environment. The world’s largest cloud computing providers are aggressively innovating novel approaches in their use of renewables and finding locations where the natural elements either provide energy or enable natural cooling of the hundreds of thousands of servers that make up today’s “digital factories.”

This week, we explore how companies, like Microsoft, are pushing clean cloud innovations to new depths through creative data center design and out-of-the-box thinking about location―making previously unthinkable places ideal from which to operate.

The clean cloud reaches new depths of sustainable and efficient operation.

The Cloud Goes Under the Sea

Microsoft, the second largest public cloud provider (behind Amazon), is building a massive data center under the sea. It will be the first underwater data center in the world. The company aims to make its cloud clean efficient and bring it closer to its customers. (Read our article from last week about how data centers are migrating to the edge where data is being created and consumed).

Microsoft’s initiative, called Project Natick, began in 2014 and “is leveraging technology from submarines and working with pioneers in marine energy for the second phase of its moonshot to develop self-sufficient underwater data centers that can deliver lightning-quick cloud services to coastal cities. An experimental, shipping-container-size prototype is processing workloads on the seafloor near Scotland’s Orkney Islands,” as stated in the company’s June 5 Press Release. They point out that more than half of the world’s population lives within 120 miles from the sea. Therefore, “by putting data centers in bodies of water near coastal cities, data would have a short distance to travel to reach coastal communities, leading to fast and smooth web surfing, video streaming, and game playing as well as authentic experiences for AI-driven technologies.”

Our digital universe is now doubling in size every 24 months. Mega data center operators like Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and Alibaba are rapidly expanding their physical footprint to stay ahead of the surge in demand to store, access, and manipulate data services in the cloud. Microsoft leader of Project Natick, Ben Cutler, says, “When you are in this kind of exponential growth curve, it tells you that most of the data centers that we’ll ever build we haven’t built yet.”

Rediscovering Blue Water as the New Green

According to Microsoft, the European Marine Energy Centre in Scotland, where Project Natick is being deployed, is an ideal place to test their transformative underwater data center initiative. The reason being is that the center already serves as a test site for experimental tidal turbines and wave energy converters that generate electricity from waves and water currents. Project Natick is only the latest initiative to harness the energy potential of water.

If pilot initiatives like Project Natick successfully materialize, underwater data center operations can bring substantial benefits to the cloud. Microsoft states, “The world’s oceans at depth are consistently cold, offering ready and free access to cooling, which is one of the biggest costs for land-based data centers.” They point out another benefit of placing cloud operations under the sea: “Underwater data centers could also serve as anchor tenants for marine renewable energy, such as offshore wind farms or banks of tidal turbines, allowing the two industries to evolve in lockstep.”

Clean and affordable energy from water―whether it is making consumption more efficient with underwater data centers, bringing the cloud closer to users, or harnessing the energy of water to power them―is a smart way to go, given that oceans cover 70% of the Earth’s surface. Other energy innovations, such as Hydrogen 2.0, can use seawater to generate hydrogen on-site and on-demand. For the underwater data centers of the future, this technology could provide the electricity needed to operate where other renewables, such as wind and solar, can’t reach.

Everybody Wins When Data Centers are Self-Sufficient and Clean

A social benefit from projects like Natick and other initiatives to make data centers more sustainable and independent of the grid is that the digital world can reach everyone. Microsoft’s press release states, “Energy self-sufficient data centers could be deployed anywhere within reach of a data pipe, bringing Azure cloud services, for example, to regions of the world with unreliable electricity, and eliminate the need for costly backup generators in case of power grid failures.” This is good news because most data centers today use dirty diesel engines as backup generators.

Coupled with a similar transformation in technology to make renewables like solar, wind, and hydrogen reach anywhere, this means that people in remote places can have the electricity they need to thrive. It also gives them access to a digital world that delivers benefits in critical areas such as commerce and education. Under the sea, and above it, a clean wave of transformative energy is upon us.


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