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Conquering the waters: floating data centers expansion

Back in the late summer of 2015, Microsoft set its first experimental underwater data center 30 feet under the Pacific waters off the California coast. The prototype, built under Project Natick, was dubbed Leona Philpot after a character in an Xbox game. Phase 2 of Project Natick was launched in 2018, when Microsoft sank a 40 feet-long dock with 12 racks housing 864 datacenter servers, replete with Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) acceleration and 27.6PB of disk space, in the North Sea off the Orkney Islands (Scotland).

 

Two years ago, Keppel Data Centres invested $10 million in the launch of Nautilus Data Technologies (NDT).

Keppel Data Centres is one of the three largest data center providers in Singapore. In addition to Singapore, Keppel has data centers in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia, Germany, The Netherlands, UK, and Ireland.

 

NDT is a California-based startup that has designed a floating data center using seawater as the cooling medium. This innovative cooling technology promises significant energy savings compared to traditional data center designs.

The company has a couple of ongoing underwater data center construction projects in various stages. The one near Mare Island, California is going to be Nautilus’s first commercial data center, nicknamed Eli M. It is expected to be commissioned in the late fall of 2019. The second project is being carried out in Limerick, Ireland.

 

It’s easy to see why the idea of floating data centers is gaining momentum in the market. The underwater servers can be located in regions where the construction of ground-based data centers is impossible for various reasons, for example, the shortage of land for construction or the land’s price. At the same time, the only requirement for building a floating data center is the availability of sufficient water supplies. Keppel Data Centers has begun scouting for suitable locations.

 

In his interview for Channel News Asia, Wong Wai Meng, Keppel Data Centres CEO shared that the company is currently exploring a few sites around Singapore in the hope of building a data center that can float near its shores. Since land and energy resources are scarce on the tiny island, Singapore’s government only grants land to companies that can promote digital infrastructure growth in the country, like Google or Amazon, making it difficult for other market players to secure land for construction.

 

According to Keppel’s CEO, the company’s master plan is to build entire marinas filled with floating data center modules that share a floating power-generation module.

The estimated data center capacity on one such barge could be approximately 10 MW. In 2018, according to Structure Research, Singapore’s total data center market’s capacity was about 360 MW. Keeping that in mind, a single floating data center park could more than double supply in Singapore’s market, which might eventually help to address the issue of land availability for the construction of data centers.

 

While not fully disclosing the company's plans, Keppel’s CEO also mentioned that the modules would be manufactured ashore and then connected to a floating structure, with the installation being powered by liquefied natural gas. This is the most affordable energy source, since 95 % of Singapore's electric power is natural gas-generated. According to preliminary reports, the data center parks will use the NDT’s seawater cooling technology.

 

Overall, the development of floating data centers looks like a promising trend that has the potential to challenge the existing restrictions on land, water and energy resources.

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