'A mini data center village under the sea' — China sinks tens of thousands of powerful servers in fresh seawater as it grapples with demand for more power

Image of a data center seen through glass with water dripping off it
(Image credit: Getty Images/klmax)

China has started to assemble what might turn out to be the world's first commercial underwater data center, as it aims to take advantage of the freezing water to cool its operations and save on energy consumption.

The data center, which comprises 100 units spanning 68,000 square meters in size, will be constructed over five years at the bottom of the sea off the coast of Sanya, a coastal city on the island of Hainan in southern China, according to China Central Television (CCTV).

Each data storage weighs 1,300 tons and processes more than four million HD images in 30 seconds, with the performance equivalent to stitching together the processing power of 60,000 of the best conventional desktop PCs together.

Saving energy by going underwater

China started to assemble the facility in April, planting the first data storage unit in place, and has now undergone the procss of putting together all 100 units together, according to sister site Tom's Hardware. Each module must travel 35 meters to the seafloor, which takes three hours. But, thankfully, it'll set to last 25 years.

With the demand for big data processing, cloud services, as well as generative AI workloads in the industry expanding across the world, the data center industry is in something of a construction boom. 

New projects are starting up everywhere to meet the rising demand, but this has knock-on effects for other parts of the economy, particularly given the tendency for data centers to guzzle up land mass, water (for cooling) as well as energy.

This project has been years in the making, and there are several key benefits. Firstly, it'll save land that could otherwise be used to build other commercial buildings or housing. 

Secondly, it'll save roughly 122 million kWh of electricity as well as roughly 105,000 tons of freshwater each year. This is because the freezing seawater acts as a natural cooling element, which can reduce the cost of using water as a coolant on a land-based facility.

Once completed, the data center will be between 40 and 60% more energy efficient than land-based data centers, according to general manager of the UDC Hainan pilot development project, Pu Ding, reported Tom's Hardware.

Many organizations and entities have previously submerged data centers under water – including Microsoft's Project Natick. But this will be the first commercial data center facility that will serve a variety of organizations. 

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Keumars Afifi-Sabet
Channel Editor (Technology), Live Science

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is the Technology Editor for Live Science. He has written for a variety of publications including ITPro, The Week Digital and ComputerActive. He has worked as a technology journalist for more than five years, having previously held the role of features editor with ITPro. In his previous role, he oversaw the commissioning and publishing of long form in areas including AI, cyber security, cloud computing and digital transformation.