Kyle Burton, a blue economy veteran with experience working for multiple startup support organizations, is launching his own company to build subsea computer data centres.
Gazpek, as Burton dubs his ambitious new business, hopes to place server hardware on the seafloor. The strategy could radically cut down on the costs associated with building and operating data centres.
Burton brings significant bluetech experience to the play. He was also previously a manager at Dartmouth’s Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship and a program coordinator at provincial venture capital Crown corporation Innovacorp.
“We’re totally reimagining what a data centre looks like,” said Burton in an interview. "So instead of those big, boxy warehouses that you see on land, we're removing all the hallways, washrooms, all of the things that are human-centric, changing the format into a large pressurized cylinder that will be anchored to the seafloor."
Gazpek was inspired partly by Microsoft’s Project Natick, a multi-year research program aimed at gauging the feasibility of subsea data centres powered by renewable energy. Engineers sank their server equipment in 117 feet of water off Scotland’s Northern Isles and left it in operation there for two years.
Project Natick ended in 2020 and concluded that underwater data storage was a viable technology likely to be “reliable, practical and use energy sustainably.”
The model offers significant benefits compared to land-based server farms. Burton said the land for terrestrial data centres can sometimes cost over $1 million an acre, while land on the seafloor off the Atlantic coast of the United States can sell for as little as US$4 an acre. And the seawater can aid in cooling, reducing the ever-present concerns about overheating that plague conventional data centres.
“Lessons learned from Project Natick … are informing Microsoft’s datacenter sustainability strategy around energy, waste and water,” Microsoft said in 2020, but it has not announced plans to directly commercialize the technology. In January, Chinese company Highlander announced a deal to build a roughly C$1 billion subsea data centre for the Chinese government.
Burton said Gazpek’s pressurized cylinders will be filled with nitrogen because it allows for the humidity inside the container to be effectively zero, which will prevent corrosion of sensitive computer components — another benefit compared to land-based data centres, where the atmosphere must be breathable by humans.
“It has ribs on the exterior which helps maximize the surface area and allow the ocean to work its magic on the passive cooling side of things,” said Burton. “And then inside is a myriad of cooling systems which actively help manage the heat dissipation.”
In other words, the passive cooling of the seawater will be augmented by fans and other conventional cooling systems inside the cylinder, drawing heat outwards from the centre so it can be dissipated by the seawater.
Gazpek will own the cylinders and associated equipment, while the company’s clients will lease space and own the servers themselves, similar to the model employed by many land-based data facilities.
Burton is in the process of raising a $600,000 pre-seed funding round with the aim of building a fully operational demonstration unit. He plans to spend the money finishing the design, beginning the procurement process and hiring more staff.
So far, Gazpek has three full time employees, including Burton. He eventually plans to grow the team to between 15 and 20 people with the help of grants and government funding, although some of those workers will be contractors, not in-house staff.
Burton plans to partner with incumbent players in the data storage space to operate the demonstration unit, with blockchain companies as its likely first customers because the massive amounts of heat generated by the mining and use of cryptocurrencies pair well with the cooling benefits of Gazpek’s system.
Later, he hopes to target a broader market and build cylinders that will run off renewable energy, compared to the demonstration unit, which will be powered via a cable from shore.