Building data centres at sea an idea worth floating

Singapore is well-positioned for offshore data storage centres that could give local shipyards a new business niche

There was a time not so long ago when all the data I created or needed was in a box on my desk. In it were several 3.5-inch floppy disks, each with the capacity of about 200KB. With that level of technology, the data needed today just for a smartphone would require a storage space as large as a fridge.

Data storage efficiency has improved a zillion times. It will improve further, with researchers looking at atoms as the place to store bits and bytes.

However, the demand for more storage space is increasing at an alarming rate. The volume of data that a billion people on the planet put in cloud storage is mind-boggling: pictures, songs, videos, text messages and information downloaded from the Internet. Industries send massive files across the world, multiple times to multiple recipients.

In the old days, files were periodically shredded to make room for new files. With digital records and storage, people became infected with the hoarding "keep-it-they-may-be-useful" disorder.

The Internet of Everything, a term used to describe the linking of devices over the Internet, will add enormous demand for more space. According to the Northeastern University in the United States, the total amount of data in the world was 4.4 zettabytes in 2013, and that is set to rise steeply to 44 zettabytes by 2020(1 zettabyte is equivalent to 1 trillion GB).

A HUGE BUSINESS

Big data involves "capturing, storing, analysis, data curation, searching, sharing, transferring, visualisation, querying, updating and information privacy", as Wikipedia defines it - which is as good a definition as any.

According to Forbes magazine, the International Data Corporation said that worldwide revenues for big data and business analytics will grow from US$130.1 billion (S$182 billion) last year to more than $203 billion in 2020, at a compound annual growth rate of 11.7 percent.

Just as Singapore is a hub of air and sea traffic, it is important to aim to to be a hub of the information highway. Singapore's renowned security regime and robust communication system make it an attractive place for hosting big data. Google's choice of Singapore for its $675 million data centre as one of only two countries in Asia to host such a centre testifies to that.

However, Singapore faces challenges. It is in the tropics. The hot and humid weather means a higher operating cost for data centres. They generate a lot of heat that has to be removed by circulating cool air, gobbling up energy in the process. Countries with access to renewable energy (such as wind and hydro) or the cold air of high mountains are technically ideal places. Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon have data centres in the Nordic countries to serve Europe. China's largest data centre is 1,065m above sea level in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.

Britain's foremost data centre expert Ian Bitterlin said: "The amount of energy used by data centres is doubling every four years (and) analysts forecast that data centres will consume roughly treble the amount of electricity in the next decade."

According to Popular Science magazine: "The US alone annually sucks up the equivalent of the energy output of 34 coal-fired power plants. A lot of that energy goes to powering the actual servers, but almost half of it goes to keeping the servers nice and cool, so they don't overheat and crash."

Data centres have immense footprints - sizes of 3ha or 4ha are common. They need to be scalable, which means they need land banks for future expansion. For a tiny island with the world's densest population, this is a challenge.

This is where we need to think out of the box - and go beyond land.

GOING OUT TO SEA

I am an advocate of the sea as a space solution, and have written about this in previous articles. In this case, the sea is also a convenient heat sink, besides the fact that the thermophysical properties of sea water are far superior to air for the transfer of heat.

Nautilus Data Technologies, set up in a naval base in San Francisco to exploit this concept, is building a floating data centre, which, it claims, will be "80 per cent more energy efficient". Microsoft is experimenting with data centres siting at the bottom of the ocean, where water temperatures are significantly lower.

Google has filed a patent in the US for a "water-based data centre". The patent was "for platforms and support systems floating three miles (4.8km) to seven miles offshore in water 50m to 70m deep, using wave energy for power and sea water for server cooling, grouped into floating platforms and support systems".

The Google project, although shrouded in secrecy, was voted one of the best inventions of 2008 by Time Magazine. Media reports in 2013 suggested that some floating data centres were in operation around San Francisco, although Google did not comment on the speculation. Microsoft, meanwhile, is experimenting with underwater data centres.

NEW LEASE OF LIFE FOR SHIPYARDS

Whether floating, semi- or fully submerged, offshore or near-shore data centres are more environmentally friendly. They consume less energy. They do not add to the heat load of the atmosphere.

They do not compete for water resources as they can desalinate the water from the sea and, consequently, there is no need for miles of buried pipes to transport water to the plant to replenish evaporated water in cooling towers.

Their construction generates no noise, nor does it involve earth-moving, piling or burdening roads with building material and construction equipment.

Against that scenario, it should be pointed out that the oil-rig industry has suffered, and is still suffering, its worst crisis in its history, with headwinds from shale and renewables.

Keppel and Sembcorp Marine have downsized their workforce and shipyard assets locally and abroad. Tens of thousands in the industry have lost their jobs. It is a dangerous situation.

The industry may reach a tipping point when recovery will not be possible as has happened in the US, Britain and, more recently, in Japan and possibly South Korea.

If Singapore's undergraduates lose interest in the field, the risk of an irreversible downward spiral in the industry's technological dominance cannot be discounted.

In previous articles for The Straits Times, I called on shipyards to reach out to the limitless array of other floating assets, ranging from floating parks to floating nuclear power plants. Floating data centres are yet another type of asset that would fit well in the production systems of local shipyards.

Floating data centres such as offshore oil rigs are exportable assets with values in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The nature of the product demands high security in the fabrication process and a strong balance sheet. It is not something for low-end shipyards with cheap labour. Singapore's larger shipyards, with their global footprint, certainly have the credibility to attract the attention of global service providers. They deserve seeding funds from the Government to test bed the concept.

The Keppel Group is particularly well suited to lead the foray into this market as it is also a significant data-centre provider. The first prototype floating data centre can be a showpiece for its Keppel T&T and Keppel Offshore and Marine arms.

BEYOND BARGES AND SUNKEN CAPSULES

The technology and science behind floating data centres are nascent. The floating solutions employed by the pioneers in this field (Google, Microsoft and Nautilus Data) are just at the bottom rung.

Builders of offshore structures, like Keppel and Sembcorp Marine, have much to contribute from their portfolio of floating solutions in shallow and deep water. They could offer solutions in international waters away from any jurisdiction and permitting environment, as well as being capable of self-sustenance in terms of water and power. These solutions have not been explored because, I suspect, the people involved lack the knowledge to stabilise and secure such structures in deep water. Semi-submersibles, with their excellent sea-keeping characteristics, could overcome that.

The offshore people have also a suite of subsea asset designs, which could be explored.

The power required could be conventional, nuclear or renewables, such as ocean currents, wind and Otec (Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion), and could be maintenance-free as conceived in Microsoft's undersea data centre, Project Natick.

To scale up, another unit could be built off-site, towed to site and fired up. If political instability undermines the security of the asset, it could be towed out of harm's way.

Floating data centres for a world market could become a cornerstone of Singapore's economy. As in the case of oil rigs, they need shipyard facilities to make it happen but, unlike oil rigs, they do not need thousands upon thousands of semi-skilled workers.

I suggest that the Government and Temasek Holdings, as major stakeholders of the marine industry, take the concept and turn it into another global brand for Singapore.


  • The writer is managing director of Floating Solutions, a company using maritime engineering principles to provide floating structures for varied uses.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2017, with the headline 'Building data centres at sea an idea worth floating'. Print Edition | Subscribe