Green gimmicks vs. real data center opportunities
Another year, another rehash of old ideas for green data center applications. Over the past 10 weeks, there's been another wave of news around Microsoft's submerged data center concept, Stockholm bragging about using server waste heat to keep the neighborhood warm and toasty, and yet another déjà vu revisit to "edge" computing displacing data centers. People need to ignore the gimmicks and look to what IBM is doing with AI and quantum computing for better opportunities.
Microsoft's Project, Natick, has finished testing a containerized, sealed pod containing a bunch of servers. "Free" cooling comes directly from the sea via heat exchangers, so just anchor at the appropriate depth or to the sea floor, plug in power and fiber. The oxygen, water vapor and dust are sucked out before sealing, providing an almost pristine environment for electronics—certainly cleaner and more maintenance free than a typical air-breathing facility –so you should see better reliability and uptime than a land equivalent.
The engineers who cooked up this concept envision longer pipes of servers, with groups of pipes making up a farm (or school, since we're talking about underwater). Lower power requirements due to free cooling, lower or little real-estate costs to emplace the server facility off-shore (but off-set by marine handling and boat shipping) as opposed to finding and building a land-based facility, and the potential to hook everything up to off-shore renewables, such as a wind farm or the efforts to harness tides, waves, or currents.
Biofouling on the heat exchanges is still an open question. If barnacles and other sea life grow over the heat exchanges, efficiency goes down, temperatures go up and electronics cook if it gets too hot. Having to go out and clean off the heat exchanges on a submerged pod would be inconvenient and cost money.
If the economics of a sealed container dumped into the sea workout for developed and/or emerging markets, good for Microsoft. But I can see some people/nations wanting "rent" for seafloor anchoring close to shore just as easily as they would for a land-based facility. I guess I won't be convinced until I see a couple of production facilities up and running.
Stockholm Data Parks are working the angle of "free" cooling by virtue of dumping waste heat into Stockholm's heating system. The long term goal is to supply 10 percent of the city's residential heating demand through recovered excess heat from data center buildouts. The fine print is you need lots of servers to generate that heat -- on the order of 10 MW draw of renewable power before you get "cooling as a service"-- and facilities are currently greenfield land or existing shells.
The latest hype about edge computing seems to be a rehash of micro data centers, this time fed by 5G marketing buzz. Edge computing doesn't make centralized data center economics of scale go away, and does nothing to address the need for centralized specialized resources for big data storage and analytics, or the necessity of providing general access for expensive resources such as AI and quantum computing.
Enter IBM and how it continues to shape the computing world, with quantum computing. IBM's Watson technology push has lead to machine learning moving from sci-fi idea to mainstream applications in a few years. The company plans to do the same thing with quantum computing for business and science applications, announcing a roadmap this week. It will provide API tools and a SDK for using quantum-based resources, providing developers and programmers a way to start building code between classic and quantum computers.
Like Watson, IBM is going to build hardware. The IBM Q system will be commercial hardware using around 50 qubits, with an expected in-service date sometime in the next few years. The hardware needs to be kept at near absolute zero to sate the tech needs of quantum weirdness, so you won't see this sort of hardware on the edge or in an underwater data center anytime soon.
The data center big takeaway here is to stay at the center of the universe through embracing leading edge technologies. Be less concerned about the gimmicks of the season, since they'll be a fresh new set in the next 90 days.
Image from: pinterest.com