On the outside and on the inside, our newest data center (DC) is more than a little different: there are no cooling towers chugging on the roof, no chillers, or coolants at all. No, we’re not doing a drive stats experiment on how well data centers run at 54° Celsius. This data center, owned and developed by Nautilus Data Technologies, is nice and cool inside. Built with a unique mix of proven maritime and industrial water-cooling technologies that use river water to cool everything inside—racks, servers, switches, and people—this new DC is innovative, environmentally awesome, secure, fascinating, and other such words and phrases, all rolled into one. And it just happens to be located on a barge on a river in California.
It’s a unique setup, one that might raise a few eyebrows. It certainly did for us. But once our team dug in, we didn’t just find room for another exabyte of data, we found an extremely resilient data center that supports our durability requirements and decreases our environmental impact of providing you cloud storage. You can do a deep dive into the Nautilus technology on their website, but of course I needed to make my own visit to look into this shiny new tech on my own. What follows is an overview of what I learned: how the technology works and why we decided to make the Nautilus data center part of our cloud storage platform.
Nautilus Data Center Overview
In the Port of Stockton in California, an odd looking barge is moored next to the shore of the San Joaquin River. If you were able to get close enough, you might notice the massive mooring poles the barge is attached to. And if you were a student of such things, you might recognize these mooring poles as having the same rating as the mooring poles whose attached boats and barges survived hurricane Katrina. The barge isn’t going anywhere.
Above deck are the data center halls. Once inside, it feels like, well, a data center—almost. The power distribution units (PDUs) and other power-related equipment hum quietly and racks of servers and networking gear are lined up across the floor, but there are no hot and cold aisles, and no air conditioning grates or ductwork either. Instead the ceiling is lined with an orderly arrangement of pipes carrying water that’s been cooled by the river outside.
Upriver from the data center, water is collected from the river and filtered before running through the heat exchanger that cools water circulating in a closed loop inside the data center. River water never enters the data center hall.
The technology used to collect and filter the water has been used for decades in power plants, submarines, aircraft carriers, and so on. The entire collection system is marine wildlife-friendly and certified by multiple federal and state agencies, commissions, and water boards, including the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. One of the reasons Nautilus chose the Port of Stockton was the truism that, if you can get something certified for operation in the state of California, then you can typically get it certified pretty much anywhere.
Inside the data center, at specific intervals, water supply and return lines run down to the rear door on each rack. The server fans expel hot air through the rear door and the water inside the door removes the heat to deliver cool air into the room. We use ColdLogik Rear Door Coolers to perform the heat exchange process. The closed loop water system is under vacuum—meaning that it’s leak proof, so water will never touch the servers. A nice bit of innovation by the Nautilus designers and engineers.
Downriver from the data center, the water is discharged. The water can be up to 4° Fahrenheit warmer than when it started upriver. As we mentioned before, the various federal and state authorities worked with Nautilus engineers to select a discharge location which was marine wildlife-friendly. Within seconds of being discharged the water is back to river temperature and continues its journey to the Sacramento Delta. The water spends less than 15 seconds end-to-end in the system which operates with no additional water, uses no chemicals, and adds zero pollutants to the river.
For Backblaze, the process of choosing a data center location is a bit more rigorous than throwing a dart at a map and putting some servers there. Our due diligence checklist is long and thorough, taking into consideration redundancy, capacity, scalability, cost, network providers, power providers, stability of the data center owner, and so on. The Nautilus facility passed all of our tests and will enable us to store over an exabyte of data on-site to optimize our operational scalability. In addition, the Nautilus relationship brings us a few additional benefits not traditionally heard of when talking about data centers.
Storage Pods, Drive Farming, Drive Stats, and even Backblaze B2 Cloud Storage are all innovations in their own way as they changed market dynamics or defined a different way to do things. They all have in common the trait of putting together proven ideas and technologies in a new way that adds value to the marketplace. In this case, Nautilus marries proven maritime and industrial water cooling and distribution technologies with a new approach to data center infrastructure. The result is an innovative way to use a precious resource to help meet the ever-increasing demand for data storage. This is the kind of engineering and innovation we admire and respect.
We can appreciate the environmental impact of the Nautilus data center from two perspectives. The first is obvious: taking a precious resource, river water, and using it to not only lower the carbon footprint of the data center (Nautilus projects by up to 30%), but to also do so without permanently affecting the resource and ecosystem. That’s awesome. The world has been harnessing the power of Mother Nature for thousands of years, yet doing so responsibly has not always been top-of-mind in the process. In the case of Nautilus, the environmental impact is at the top of their list.
The second reason this is awesome is that Nautilus chose to do this in California, coming face-to-face with probably the most stringent environmental requirements in the United States. Almost anywhere else would have been easier, but if you are looking to show your environmental credibility and commitment, then California is the place to start. We commend them for their effort.
Like any well-run data center site, Nautilus has a multitude of industry standard security practices in place: a 24x7x365 security staff, cameras, biometric access, and so on. But the security doesn’t stop there. Being a data center on a barge also means that divers regularly inspect the underwater systems and the barge itself for maintenance and security purposes. In addition, by nature of being a data center on a barge in the Port of Stockton, the data center has additional security: the port itself is protected by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the waterways are patrolled by the U.S. Coast Guard. This enhanced collection of protective resources is unique for data centers in the U.S., except possibly the kind of data centers we are not supposed to know anything about.
The Manatee in the River
Let’s get to the elephant in the room here: is there risk in putting a data center on a barge in a river? Yes—but no more so than putting one in a desert, or near any body of water, or near a forest, or in an abandoned mine, or near a mountain, or in a city. You get the idea: they all have some level of risk. We’d argue that this new data center—with its decreased reliance on energy and air conditioning and its protection by DHS, among other positives—is quite a bit more reliable than most places the world stores its data. As always, though, we continue to encourage folks to have their data in multiple places.
Still, putting a data center on a river is novel. We’re sure some people will make jokes, and probably pretty funny ones—we’re happy to laugh at our own expense. (It’s certainly happened before.) We are also sure some competitors will use this as part of their sales and marketing—FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) as it is called behind your back. We don’t play that game, and, as with our past innovations, we’re used to people sniping a bit when we move out ahead on technology. As always, we encourage you to dig in, get the facts, and be comfortable with the choice you make. Here at Backblaze, we won’t sell you up the river, but we may put your data there.