The Data Vessel: Nautilus Data Launches Waterborne Data Center

After six years of development and a 50-mile cruise, Nautilus Data Technologies’ vision for a water-based data center has arrived.

The ambitious startup has launched its first facility, a 7-megawatt data center in Stockton, California that brings a new concept to the data center industry. Nautilus houses its data center infrastructure on the deck of a barge on the San Joaquin River in the Port of Stockton.

Nautilus Data Technologies seeks to tap rivers, lakes and oceans to slash the cost of cooling servers. A water-based colocation center is a novel approach that has made headlines since Google first floated the idea in a 2007 patent filing, and was made real by Microsoft’s deployment of its Project Natick undersea data center.

Although its first data center is water-based, Nautilus expects to deploy future systems on both land and water.

The Nautilus multi-tenant colocation facility in Stockton is now operating with a handful of customers, and CEO James Connaughton says Nautilus offers a timely prototype for bringing sustainable computing to new places. The Nautilus design uses prefabricated data modules and a water-cooled rear-door cooling unit, a combination that offers exceptional energy efficiency. The company expects to deliver a PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) of 1.15 or lower, a range typical of the largest hyperscale operators.

“The rapidly growing data center sector is just as rapidly on the way to becoming utterly unsustainable,” said Connaughton. “Nautilus can reverse that. We want to make this technology as widely available as possible to sustainably help close the digital divide and enhance the lives of people around the world.”

Ready to Deploy on Land and Water

It’s a big vision, but the Nautilus team is no stranger to tackling unconventional new projects. Industry experts have debated whether its vision for a water-based data center is sheer brilliance or total madness. As it deploys additional projects, Nautilus is looking at a broader range of deployment models.

“We’re agnostic as to the form factor in which we reach a market,” said Connaughton. “There will be many markets that have readily available berth space to apply the data vessel option. There are also numerous markets with a lot of available brownfield or greenfield industrial real estate located near the water’s edge. I think we have quite significant amount of locational flexibility with our approach, for both ourselves and for future partners.”

“The rapidly growing data center sector is just as rapidly on the way to becoming utterly unsustainable. Nautilus can reverse that.”
Nautilus CEO James Connaughton

Nautilus Data was founded in 2015, and has spent the last six years seeking to convert its vision into a working data center facility at scale. Last year it lined up $100 million in funding from Orion Energy Partners to deliver the Stockton project, and it has a second facility in the works in Limerick, Ireland. Nautilus’ investors include Keppel Data Centers, which has expressed interest in deploying water-based data centers in Singapore, where real estate development sites are scarce.

As it enters its next phase as a company, Nautilus is leading with its patented TRUE cooling system – short for Total Resource Usage Effectiveness. The acronym reflects the company’s belief that efficiency goes beyond power, and that water management is critically important for future data centers.

By using a rear door cooling unit, the company says it can support unusual density, allowing customers to get more data center capacity per square foot of real estate. Nautilus says its water cooling system can support workloads at up to 100 kilowatts a rack, compared to the current average of about 8 kW per rack. That enables new deployment footprints for high-performance computing (HPC) uses like AI, as well as denser deployments of applications for remote learning, telemedicine, telework, smart transportation and manufacturing that have proven crucial to society during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cabinets inside a data module at the Nautilus Data Technologies facility in Stockton. (Photo: Nautilus Data)

Cabinets inside a data module at the Nautilus Data Technologies facility in Stockton. (Photo: Nautilus Data)

Sailing to the Data Center Site

The Nautilus design features separate module designs for data halls, power, and cooling. The Stockton design uses four data modules, with three 2 MW modules and a 1 MW module. Nautilus President Rob Pfleging says the design is flexible, and can be adapted for different scenarios. Pfleging has experience with modular deployments from his tenure at Vertiv, where he was Senior VP for Global Solutions before joining Nautilus last year. Chief Technology Officer Patrick Quirk is also a Vertiv alum.

The data barge for the Stockton project was built at the Nautilus facility at Mare Island in Vallejo, Calif. Once it was complete, it sailed 50 miles to the Port of Stockton, taking about six hours to make the journey. Once the vessel arrived in Stockton, it took about 48 hours to complete the power and fiber connections to bring the facility online.

These pipes are opart of the cooling system for the Nautilus Data Technologies facility in Stockton. (Photo: Nautilus Data)

These pipes are part of the cooling system for the Nautilus Data Technologies facility in Stockton. (Photo: Nautilus Data)

The cooling system features two separate piping loops and a heat exchanger. Cool water from the river will enter through an intake several feet below the barge. The intake water is filtered to eliminate contaminants, and then moves to the heat exchanger. A fresh water cooling loop on the other side of the heat exchanger feeds the rear-door cooling systems on the racks.

The intake system can work with any type of water – salt or brackish, fresh water or grey (recycled) water. The water is returned to its source with “negligible” thermal impact, the company says. The Nautilus team worked with federal, state, and local environmental officials to secure regulatory approvals, These included:

  • California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) analysis finding “no significant adverse impact to the environment.”
  • US National Marine Fisheries Service (endangered species protection)
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service (endangered species protection)
  • US Army Corps of Engineers (wetlands protections)
  • California Department of Fish and Wildlife (state species protection)
  • California State Lands Commission (public trust and natural resource protection)
  • California Regional Water Quality Control Board (water quality protection)
  • California Air Quality Management District (air quality protection)

Pfleging noted that by meeting California’s thorough environmental regulations, Nautilus is well positioned to address regulatory requirements in other markets.

Bringing Green Tech to Brownfield Sites

The Stockton project “is a great proof point for us,” said Connaughton. “It’s a project at an industrial brownfield in an economically disadvantaged community. We’re repurposing brown infrastructure into green infrastructure, while bringing first-class, telecommunications technology into a community that currently lacks it.”

Stockton was once the gateway to the Central Valley, and a major port during the California Gold Rush. The region was hit hard by the real estate problems during the 2008 financial crisis, and in 2012 it became the largest U.S. city to ever file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. The city emerged from bankruptcy in 2015, and the Nautilus project is being welcomed as an economic development opportunity.

“We are really excited about the possibilities that Nautilus will bring to Stockton and San Joaquin County,” said Bob Gutierrez, Interim President and CEO of San Joaquin Partnership, “Since its arrival, we have received numerous inquiries about their services, and it has acted as a proof of concept for other technology innovators to come to San Joaquin. This project certainly puts us in a competitive position as technology companies seek competitive, innovative green solutions to their growing demand.”

The entrance to the Nautilus Data Technologies facility in Stockton. (Photo: Nautilus Data)

The entrance to the Nautilus Data Technologies facility in Stockton. (Photo: Nautilus Data)

The Port of Stockton is a Tier 1 Homeland Security Port, offering enhanced security. The data center is carrier-neutral and connected to an 18-mile redundant fiber ring that links to the local carrier hotel, providing direct connectivity to cloud and communication providers.

“We are operational with a handful of customers, and have another group of customers coming on board in the next two months,” said Connaughton. “t’s a mix of large enterprise, federal government and local government, as well as some managed service providers.”

Nautilus believes its water-based cooling system can bring digital infrastructure to new places, including communities like Stockton that have no commercial data centers.

“As a startup, we have to focus on the high-demand developed markets,” said Connaughton. ‘But our objective is to be able to bring this simpler, more resilient, and much more sustainable infrastructure into emerging markets. Our ability to pre-manufacture and deliver a data center that can be assembled at large scale is particularly well suited to closing the digital divide in the majority of the world that still does not have access to modern data center services.”

Nautilus can’t do that alone, but the company hopes to work with other service providers to extend its reach.

“Our goal is to get this approach widely deployed,” said Connaughton. “We’re talking to joint venture partners who are developing their own locations, and now have a choice between chilled air and water-cooled options. We’ll give them a build option that they didn’t have before.

“There are colocation developers all over the world trying to keep up with the burgeoning demand for data center infrastructure,” he said. “We’re hopeful to partner up, because we want to see this technology deployed everywhere so that high performance computing and sustainability are available to everyone.”

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