The port of Hainan has said it will launch a commercial undersea data center, based on a prototype tested earlier this year.

The facility will operate in 100 airtight pressure vessels on the sea bed near the Changjiang Nuclear Power Plant, according to a tweet from Hainan Free Trade Port. The vessels will be built by marine specialist Beijing Highlander, which tested the technology at Hainan earlier this year, and operated by ISP Beijing Sinnet.

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Rendering of the Hainan data center plan –

Highlander cools data centers underwater

The project, launched at an event in Haikou with government representatives and senior executives from companies including Highlander, Sinnet, Hainan Telecom, and Lenovo, aims to install racks of data center equipment in pressure vessels which are sunk to the sea bed at offshore locations near the massive Chinese island port. The tiny data centers will be operated through a combined power-and Internet cable, and cooled by the surrounding seawater.

Highlander (also referred to as Hailan Xin or Hailanxin) is commercializing and developing a concept pioneered by Microsoft with its Project Natick, which operated a 12-rack data center successfully, off the coast of Scotland for two years. Microsoft patented a data center "reef" composed of several such data centers linked together on the seabed, but has not revealed any plans to commercialize the idea. In fact, the company recently announced it would open-source several patents including some relating to underwater data centers.

At the event, on May 21, Highlander and the Hainan Port's investment company (Hainan Xintou) announced a five-year plan to build an underwater data center out of 100 "data cabins" - pressure vessels similar to the prototype used earlier this year. Videos animations show these vessels arranged in groups on the sea bed around a central communications module with links to land based systems.

Operating data centers underwater will keep them cool without using lots of energy, reducing their power utilization effectiveness (PUE), the meeting heard. By using low-carbon energy from the local Changjiang nuclear power station, the project could be a carbon-neutral data center.

The project has been given the go-ahead after favorable results from water temperature data and storm impact analysis by Highlander. Once the system is running, leading companies will be invited to run demonstration applications on it, before it goes live this year or early next year.

The project will be built in three phases: five data cabins will be installed this year, with a further 45 data cabins going down in the second phase from 2022 to 2023, and another 50 in the third phase from 2024 to 2025. If the demand is high, said reports, "the data cabin can also be replicated and promoted on a large scale."

At the 21 May event, Highlander vice president Xu Tan said that Hainan’s free trade port had an attractive policy and a demand for reliable data flow. He also hoped that the data centers would be helped by Hainan’s rich marine resources, including cool water and the nearby nuclear power plant - saving energy, fresh water, and land.

"With the advent of the 5G and even 6G era, data flow will increase exponentially, and the construction of submarine data centers can also meet the needs of future development," said Xu Tan.

Beijing Sinnet president Yang Yuhang said Sinnet would work with Highlander to develop the data center into a fully national resource. Sinnet and Highlander would create a joint venture to operate the eventual data center.

The State-owned Assets Supervision and Administrative Commission (SASAC) of Hainan promised to work to ensure the orderly implementation of the project.

Despite Highlander's upbeat plans, some have doubts: "Although power expenses might be lower than land-based data centers, the one-off investment at the beginning could be massive," Yang Zhiyong, an analyst at CCID Consulting, a state-backed IT consultancy, told Reuters. "I'm skeptical about its profitability."

According to reports, Highlander's partners include manufacturer Hainan Shangtang Technology, and ISP Beijing Sinnet which will operate the data centers once constructed.