China looks to ocean for cheaper way of cooling power-hungry data centres

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Windmills and a power plant can be seen in the distance as beachgoers watch sunset in the city of Dongfang on the western side of China's island province of Hainan, June 18, 2014. REUTERS/John Ruwitch/File Photo

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BEIJING, May 25 (Reuters) - China is looking to the sea to help cut the cost of cooling data centres housing powerful computers and servers, and also to reduce consumption of traditional energy sources in a sector known for its high electricity needs.

The southern island province of Hainan has commenced work on the world's first undersea commercial data centre, with completion expected in five years, the state assets regulator in Hainan said on its website on Monday.

Data centres are fitted with server racks that store and process internet data, and consume large amounts of energy to cool their computer networks. Power costs represent up to 70% of operation expenses at a data centre in China, according to statistics from Greenpeace.

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Shenzhen-listed maritime tech firm Highlander (300065.SZ) is teaming up with the local government on the construction, and internet service provider Beijing Sinnet technology (300383.SZ) will oversee its operation in the future, it said.

The overall design of the centre has been finalised, and an initial survey of an area off the coast was done, it added.

Some experts say an undersea data centre would operate at greater power efficiency by taking advantage of the consistently cool seawater, but others are sceptical about investment returns and the reliability of undersea facilities.

"Although power expenses might be lower than land-based data centres, the one-off investment at the beginning could be massive," said Yang Zhiyong, an analyst at CCID Consulting, a state-backed IT consultancy.

"I'm sceptical about its profitability."

No investment value was given in the Hainan statement.

It was also unclear who would be financing the project.

In 2018, Microsoft (MSFT.O) lowered a non-commercial data centre the size of a truck about 35 metres (117 feet) into the sea off Britain. The miniature data centre was retrieved last year, and Microsoft declared the experiment a success.

The Hainan data centre is not big, with just 100 data cabinets, each of which to contain several server racks. Small-to-medium data centres on land typically house up to 3,000 server racks each.

"The technology for subsea data centres is not mature yet," Yang said.

“I’m afraid internet clients would probably not come to it first, as their major concern is the safety and stability of the data infrastructure.”

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Reporting by Lusha Zhang and Ryan Woo; editing by David Evans

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