Vamsi Nekkanti looks at the future of data centers – in space and underwater
Data centers can now be found on land all over the world, and more are being built all the time. Because a lot of land is already being utilized for them, Microsoft is creating waves in the business by performing trials of enclosed data centers in the water.
They have already submitted a patent application for an Artificial Reef Data Center, an underwater cloud with a cooling system that employs the ocean as a large heat exchanger and intrusion detection for submerged data centers. So, with the possibility of an underwater cloud becoming a reality, is space the next-or final-frontier?
As the cost of developing and launching satellites continues to fall, the next big thing is combining IT (Information Technology) principles with satellite operations to provide data center services into Earth orbit and beyond.
Until recently, satellite hardware and software were inextricably linked and purpose-built for a single purpose. With the emergence of commercial-off-the-shelf processors, open standards software, and standardized hardware, firms may reuse orbiting satellites for multiple activities by simply downloading new software and sharing a single spacecraft by hosting hardware for two or more users.
This “Space as a Service” idea may be used to run multi-tenant hardware in a micro-colocation model or to provide virtual server capacity for computing “above the clouds.” Several space firms are incorporating micro-data centers into their designs, allowing them to analyze satellite imaging data or monitor dispersed sensors for Internet of Things (IoT) applications.
HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 (a set of HPE Edgeline Converged EL4000 Edge and HPE ProLiant machines, each with an Nvidia T4 GPU to support AI workloads) is the first commercial edge computing and AI solution installed on the International Space Station in the first half of 2021 (Image credit: NASA)
Advantages of Space Data Centers
The data center will collect satellite data, including images, and analyze it locally. Only valuable data is transmitted down to Earth, decreasing transmission costs, and slowing the rate at which critical data is sent down.
The data center might be powered by free, abundant solar radiation and cooled by the chilly emptiness of space. Outside of a solar flare or a meteorite, there would be a minimal probability of a natural calamity taking down the data center. Spinning disc drives would benefit from the space environment. The lack of gravity allows the drives to spin more freely, while the extreme cold in space helps the servers to handle more data without overheating.
Separately, the European Space Agency is collaborating with Intel and Ubotica on the PhiSat-1, a CubeSat with AI (Artificial Intelligence) computing aboard. LyteLoop, a start-up, seeks to cover the sky with light-based data storage satellites.
NTT and SKY Perfect JV want to begin commercial services in 2025 and have identified three primary potential prospects for the technology.
The first, a “space sensing project,” would develop an integrated space and earth sensing platform that will collect data from IoT terminals deployed throughout the world and deliver a service utilizing the world’s first low earth orbit satellite MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) technology.
The space data center will be powered by NTT’s photonics-electronics convergence technology, which decreases satellite power consumption and has a stronger capacity to resist the detrimental effects of radiation in space.
Finally, the JV is looking into “beyond 5G/6G” applications to potentially offer ultra-wide, super-fast mobile connection from space.
The Challenge of Space-Based Data Centers
Of course, there is one major obstacle when it comes to space-based data centers. Unlike undersea data centers, which might theoretically be elevated or made accessible to humans, data centers launched into space would have to be completely maintenance-free. That is a significant obstacle to overcome because sending out IT astronauts for repair or maintenance missions is neither feasible nor cost-effective! Furthermore, many firms like to know exactly where their data is housed and to be able to visit a physical site where they can see their servers in action.
While there are some obvious benefits in terms of speed, there are also concerns associated with pushing data and computing power into orbit. In 2018, Capitol Technology University published an analysis of many unique threats to satellite operations, including geomagnetic storms that cripple electronics, space dust that turns to hot plasma when it reaches the spacecraft, and collisions with other objects in a similar orbit.
The concept of space-based data centers is intriguing, but for the time being-and until many problems are worked out-data centers will continue to dot the terrain and the ocean floor.