The bus-sized, white capsule turns a shade of aquamarine as it is lowered from a floating crane platform into the Hoy Sound in the Orkney archipelago of northern Scotland. A foot of sea water froths over its top before it sinks to the floor of the salt water bay where it will remain for at least the next five years, powered by Orkney’s renewable energy and cooled by the seawater. This is an important moment for Microsoft, whose engineers hope that technologies similar to those in this capsule – and used to store and transmit the trillions of bytes of data that flow across the internet at all times – will ensure the network technologies of the future are non-damaging to the environment.
As the capsule sinks from view, it’s a reminder that the seemingly ethereal internet still has a physical footprint. Data centres – though more often found in warehouses on land – take up space. They also run hot. Keeping them powered and preventing them from overheating takes up a considerable amount of energy. In fact, an estimated three per cent of the world’s entire electricity usage goes to powering the ICT industry, a significant chunk of that on data centres. The internet also has one of the fastest growing carbon footprints, linked to the exponential increase in demand for data. We produced more data in the last year alone than throughout the rest of human history. To prevent this data climb from creating an even larger carbon footprint, efforts are being made to push data centres into colder territories: the sea, the Arctic, and possibly even into orbit.
Microsoft’s ‘Project Natick’ thinks the ocean is the best bet. ‘Water is 800 times denser than air,’ says Ben Cutler, the project’s manager. ‘Touching water rather than air means you are in contact with many more molecules and can transfer thermal energy much more quickly and efficiently.’ The hope is that the sea off Orkney’s coast will help eliminate the need for energy to be used in cooling the servers – a process known as ‘free cooling’.
‘An everyday example is when you burn your finger,’ Cutler explains. ‘Putting it in cold water is much more effective than holding in front of an air conditioner.’
This marks the second time Microsoft has gone underwater with its storage. In 2016, the tech giant sunk a smaller capsule off the coast of central California. This time round, the Orkney Islands were chosen because of the abundance of wind and wave energy in the region, allowing the data centre to be run on 100 per cent environmentally friendly energy.
The same quest for emission-free and renewable internet usage is driving more tech companies northwards. Facebook already has a presence in Sweden, where it has two large data centres dubbed ‘the Node Pole’. The enormous facilities are kept cool by the chilly temperatures of Lulea, a town 100km from the Arctic Circle. The social media giant will soon be opening a third centre, doubling the size of the entire campus to more than one million square feet of computers. Cold Scandinavian climates also inspired the development of the Lefdal complex in Norway, which opened last year. Housed in an old mine, the 1.3 million square feet of space is Europe’s largest and greenest data complex and cools the housed technology using sub-Arctic fjord waters.
More ambitious is cryptocurrency firm ConnectX’s plans to establish data centres in space. Off-Earth, the bandwidth would be slow, however it could be used for housing information that doesn’t need high-speed access.
It’s not all about new frontiers. There have been some gains in updating existing land-based data centres to become more efficient. ‘On-location improvements are harder to find, but we still look for them,’ says Cutler. Google has made headway using its DeepMind Artificial Intelligence programme. Setting it loose on a running data centre, the AI reduced the energy needed for cooling by 40 per cent. Demand for data, however, still outstrips current technologies and without a considerable breakthrough, companies will likely continue looking for naturally cold locations with access to renewable energy in order to keep the internet’s carbon footprint as small as possible.
This was published in the August 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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