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Tue Aug 20 2019



Regardless of where you were born, chances are that your youth was punctuated with vacations by the sea and the odd cooling dip in the ocean. Admittedly for those of us from cooler northern climes, these were probably limited to the one month a year that might approximate to summer, but the idea is the same the world over.

So it is perhaps surprising that we have taken quite so long to exploit the cooling ability of the sea to solve a very real problem that is only becoming more severe with time… big data.

The problem, of course, is that the more data you have, the more computing power is required, and the more heat is generated. Today’s data centres use a lot of electricity – and anything up to a third of it is being used to cool the electronics.

So I was intrigued to hear that Microsoft has “taken the plunge” and sunk an experimental data centre in the sea just off the coast of the Orkney Isles in the north of Scotland.

While that location may make a mockery of my introduction (on the grounds that a cooling dip would almost certainly lead to hypothermia), in terms of cooling potential it has a lot to offer. And to make it even more appealing, the area has a surfeit of renewable energy – mostly from wind turbines but also wave and tidal.

The data centre itself is sealed in a cylindrical structure, which has been virtually purged of oxygen and moisture, thereby minimising any chance of corrosion damage. The only downside to this is that being unmanned, there is no chance of any hardware fault being fixed.

The theory is that the passive cooling from the mass of water will be sufficient to keep the computers running reliably for a five-year period, after which the tube will be raised for maintenance.

Incredibly, environmentalists have raised concerns about rising sea temperatures. And Microsoft has admitted that there might indeed be a rise of one or two thousandths of a degree in the locality.

I can assure you, that is nowhere near enough to encourage me to put even a toe in the water!

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