Navy backs development of first 'data barge'

A startup is building the first floating data center at a naval facility in California.

Nautilus data barge

Nautilus says its floating data center is cooled by the water it floats on.


A startup called Nautilus Data Technologies said it is building the first commercial "waterborne" data center at a naval shipyard at Mare Island Naval Complex north of San Francisco. The company said deployment at the "secure port" is scheduled for next year.

Nautilus CEO Arnold Magcale is a former member of the U.S. Navy Special Forces. The startup said it worked with the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command and the Naval Postgraduate School to develop its data center prototype.

Data center operators have adopted a range of novel approaches to reducing energy consumption as a way to boost a key industry metric: power usage effectiveness, or PUE. (Datacenter operators aimed for a PUE rating around 1; Nautilus said its prototype design has been validated at 1.045).

As data center PUE ratings hit a wall, more radical designs are being consider and, significantly, attracting venture funding. Google initially proposed the concept of a floating data center. Nautilus, based in Pleasanton, Calif., said it is building the first commercial "data barge" based on a prototype moored off the California naval complex.

Even the company acknowledges early doubts about the inherent risks involved in floating millions of dollars worth of computing and other IT gear. Jay Kerley, chief information officer of Applied Materials, a major supplier to the semiconductor industry, admitted initial skepticism before becoming an advisory board member. Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, also advises the startup.

Applied Materials, environmental services supplier Veolia and the U.S. Navy provided equipment for the prototype datacenter launched last summer.

Asked about potential customers, a Nautilus executive replied in an email that "we are in talks with some of the industry's leading technology companies," but he declined to name them. The startup expects to begin announcing customers in early 2016.

To convince skeptics, Nautilus stressed that it places its floating data centers on "ocean-worthy barges" that meet U.S. Coast Guard specifications and exceed maritime standards. The barges are former military or construction ships with an expected lifetime of up to 50 years. The platforms are then "moored to piers in protected ports," the company said in a statement announcing construction of the first commercial floating datacenter.

Added a Nautilus executive: "They will be safely secured in protected ports, moored to land and supported by underwater stabilizers." The data barges are built with 13 airtight compartments. The company said the platform would "maintain buoyancy" even if five compartments were flooded. Nautilus also is considering deploying pontoons as "added protection while providing additional space and stability to the barge."

Why not just continue building data centers on terra firma and avoid the risk of being swamped? The startup, which has so far attracted $25 million in venture funding, claims its data barge design consumes up to 30 percent less energy than traditional datacenters while saving an estimated 130 million gallons of water annually.

Its patented technology uses the water on which the barge floats for cooling. Another selling point for data center operators in drought-stricken California: The data barge consumes no water since all used for cooling is recycled.

The floating facility occupies 30,000 square feet on a 230-foot barge, but the company claims that novel design efficiencies make the data barge equal to an 80,000-square-foot data center on land. The barge can be configured with up to 800 server racks and deployed in less than six months.

The company also asserts that a floating data centers moored in "carefully selected military grade ports" offer greater security and the ability to withstand natural disasters like earthquakes.

The startup's proprietary data center infrastructure management (DCIM) technologies are used to automate IT infrastructure. The DCIM approach also leverages artificial intelligence and provides what the company calls military-grade security.

Magcale touts the data barge concept as among the "most significant data center advances in decades." For now, the startup has the private investment and brain trust to back up that claim, along with support from the Navy.

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