An industry boom: China and the underwater data centre

With a commitment to building its first underwater data centre, the People’s Republic of China is working to propel innovation within the sector forward

Underwater data centre company, Highlander, has deployed a commercial facility in the sea near Hainan Island, China.

So-explained as a world-first commercial underwater data centre, the 1,300-tonne (1,433-ton) system is submerged 35 metres underwater and uses the sea as a natural cooling method. Highlander has said that the module can process more than four million high-definition images within 30 seconds, which is the equivalent of 60,000 traditional computers working simultaneously.

The company is also hoping to eventually deploy 100 such modules at the site, which it says would save 68,000 square metres of land, along with 122 million kilowatt-hours of electricity and 105,000 tons of freshwater per year.

Improving efficiency and utilising natural cooling sources

Called the Hainan Undersea Data Centre, the facility is the result of a partnership between the government and private companies. Each data centre has been designed to last 25 years. Construction of the first phase is nearly complete and holds a sealed watertight cabin placed on the seabed.

The cabin weighs 1,300 tonnes and serves both as a data repository and operates as a supercomputer. It can process over four million high-definition photos in 30 seconds and uses seawater as a natural cooling source to increase its overall energy efficiency by 40 to 60%.

Underwater data centres can harness the benefits of having complete access to water, potentially revolutionising the way that we manage and store data. However, whilst this is viewed as a sustainable solution, enterprises investing in underwater data centres are currently unable to control a potential side-effect - the rising temperatures of seawater.

A rising global need to support increased amounts of data

With an ever-growing need for storage solutions, the underwater data centre holds immense potential as a sustainable and efficient solution for data storage and processing. 

In 2015, Microsoft embarked upon Project Natick, which was to explore the feasibility of underwater data centres. Driven by the relentless growth of data and the associated energy demands of traditional data centres, the company hoped to harness the advantages of the underwater environment to revolutionise data centre infrastructure. The data centre was able to house a server rack capable of processing and storing large amounts of data, inspiring other companies to follow suit with their own underwater data centres.

With the People’s Republic of China continuing to rise as a global technology powerhouse, it has embarked on this journey in the midst of increased AI adoption and great supply chain transformation. 

According to China Briefing, the country’s data centre market is expected to reach revenue heights of US$69bn by the end of 2023, in addition to a market volume of US$86bn by 2027. This dramatic growth in the sector is mostly led by IT infrastructure, which is projected to achieve a market volume of approximately US$47bn in 2023.

Reasons for the industry to grow so rapidly in recent years include a rise in and increased demand for digital services throughout the country, increased cloud adoption and IoT expansion.

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