The vast amounts of digital information produced every day (including this article) have to be stored somewhere, and China is embarking on an innovative idea for its latest bank of data centers: putting them underwater.
Data centers are vast racks of computer storage, holding everything from your Spotify playlists to your Gmail messages. While fitting these huge server farm units underwater is no easy task, there are two key benefits, as reported by China Daily.
Firstly there's the space saved in terms of land: apparently, the plan is to put 100 of these data center blocks in place by 2025, which will take up around 68,000 square meters (about 732,000 square feet) of construction space, according to Chinese agency CCTV.
That's nearly as much space as 13 football fields. That room on land that would otherwise be taken up can be used for other purposes, or indeed left alone, while the data centers sit 35 meters (115 feet) beneath the waves.
Secondly, and even more importantly, seawater acts as a natural coolant, keeping temperatures down around the humming data centers. The estimate is that around 122 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year can be saved, or the same as the average electricity use of 160,000 Chinese citizens.
Those are the benefits, but it's not easy fitting these 1,300-ton units underwater. They need to be built to withstand the pressure and the corrosion applied by the seawater, and it's not clear precisely how these huge blocks of electronics are going to affect the marine ecosystems they're placed in.
We know that each unit offers enough processing power to manage 4 million high-definition images every 30 seconds – that's reportedly the same as 60,000 PCs, so we're looking at the power of 6 million computers if 100 of these data centers are installed.
The idea isn't completely new: Microsoft was testing the idea of putting data centers under the sea back in 2016. However, the logistics involved mean that it's not easy to make the numbers work – China Daily says this is the first commercial underwater data center.
The Hainan Undersea Data Center is the result of a partnership between the government and private companies, and is set up off the coast of Sanya, in the Hainan province of China. Each data center has been designed to last 25 years, so it'll be a while before these units will need to be replaced.
It's a reminder that all the data we're generating uses up energy that has to be found from somewhere, with the newest AI technology said to be particularly demanding in this department. More innovations like this will be needed to keep pace.