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Sustainability-in-Tech : Underwater Data-Centres Vulnerable to Soundwaves

A study by cybersecurity and robotics researchers at the University of Florida and the University of Electro-Communications has revealed how powerful sound waves could disrupt the operation of underwater data-centres.

Why Underwater Data-Centres? 

With demand for data-centres growing due to increasing demand for cloud computing and AI, plus with data-centres producing large amounts of heat, one idea from data-centre operators in recent years has been to submerge servers in metal boxes beneath the sea. Doing so can harness the natural cooling properties of ocean water and can help dramatically cut cooling costs and carbon emissions. For example, back in 2018, Microsoft submerged 2 racks with 864 servers beneath the waves in Scotland as part of the experimental project ‘Natick’.

Soundwave Threat 

However, the news from a group of cybersecurity and robotics researchers at the University of Florida and the University of Electro-Communications in Japan has revealed that the successful operation of underwater data-centres has a critical vulnerability – the potential to be seriously affected by underwater sounds. Also, there is the added complication that if servers are submerged in metal boxes below the sea and components broken/damaged (e.g. by sound or other means), it will be a complicated (and costly) operation to fix them.

As highlighted by Md Jahidul Islam, Ph.D., a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UF and author of the study: “The main advantages of having a data center underwater are the free cooling and the isolation from variable environments on land,” but “these two advantages can also become liabilities, because the dense water carries acoustic signals faster than in air, and the isolated data center is difficult to monitor or to service if components break.” 

Why Is Sound A Threat?

The study involved submerging test data centre-style servers in a laboratory water tank and in a lake on the UF campus with a speaker playing music in the water, tuned to five kilohertz. This is a frequency designed to make hard drives vibrate uncontrollably and one octave above what can be played on a piano.

The results were that networks were able to be crashed and their reliability disrupted by sound waves generated from 20 feet away. In wild conditions for example, similarly loud and potentially damaging sound waves could be generated by marine life, submarine sonar systems, industrial activity (drilling), earthquakes and seismic activity and more.

The study appears to have shown, therefore, that even something as simple as an underwater speaker playing a D note could have the potential to seriously disrupt or damage server operations in submerged data centres.

Deliberate State-Sponsored Attacks 

One key worry highlighted by the study is how deliberate sound injection attacks / acoustic attacks (e.g. by other states as an act of sabotage) could be a real threat to underwater data-centres. For example, as highlighted by UF Professor of Computer and Information Science and Engineering Sara Rampazzi, Ph.D, acoustic attacks on a submerged data-centre could be subtle: “The difference here is an attacker can manipulate the data centre in a controlled way. And it’s not easy to detect”. 

Other Defences Tested 

As part of the study, the researchers tested different defences for the submerged servers. For example, sound-proof panels were tried but raised the servers’ temperature too much, thereby countering the advantages of cooling with water. Also, active noise cancellation was found to be too cumbersome and expensive to add to every data-centre.

Algorithm 

To counter the threat of soundwaves to underwater data-centres, the research team developed a software-based solution in the form of an algorithm. The algorithm they developed (using machine learning) can identify the pattern of disruption caused by acoustic attacks and it’s anticipated that improvements to this algorithm could minimise the damage to networks by reallocating computational resources before an attack can crash the system.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

With Microsoft’s submerged server tests showing very positive results in terms of low failure rates and dramatically reduced cooling costs, underwater data-centres appear to be something that will be put into practice in the near future. However, until now, the potential threat to their operation caused by sound is not something that has been fully realised or explored until this research.

The study has therefore been valuable in raising awareness of the threat. For example, in addition to demonstrating how server disruption by sound can happen inadvertently (e.g. from a loud submarine sonar blast), it has also raised awareness of how data-centres could be vulnerable to deliberate acoustic attacks as acts of sabotage. Not only does the research have value in highlighting the threats, but it has also enabled the development of what appears to be an effective solution,i.e., an algorithm.

Finding a way to protect underwater data-centres from acoustic attacks helps future-proof the idea, thus enabling its rollout which will benefit data-centre operators (e.g. with lower costs, better heat management, and expansion of much-needed capacity). It also provides protection for all the businesses, organisations, governments, and economies for whom the smooth operation and expansion of the cloud and now AI is vital to their operations, prosperity, and plans. This study, therefore, helps contribute towards both healthier economies and a healthier planet through reducing data-centre carbon emissions.

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