Underwater data centres could be destroyed by loud noises

Underwater data centres being installed off the coasts of China, the US and Europe could be disrupted by sounds from military-grade sonar on ships and submarines, or even whales.

Some underwater data centres could be vulnerable to acoustic attacks as simple as a swimming pool speaker broadcasting a high musical note beneath the waves.

Researchers tested how sound affects computer hard drives in a metal enclosure submerged in a water tank
Adnan Abdullah

Companies have only recently begun deploying underwater data centres that can harness the ocean’s natural cooling to reduce electricity usage and carbon emissions. But experiments show computer hard drives placed within submerged metal containers can experience destructive vibrations when sounds are played underwater. Pressure amplifies these noises to such an extent they can force an immediate computer network shutdown or even cause permanent physical damage over time.

“If it is just a denial-of-service attack, that can take a few seconds, depending on the power of the acoustic signal,” says Sara Rampazzi at the University of Florida. “But the longer you emit the sound, the more you damage the computer storage device.”

Rampazzi and her colleagues tested such acoustic attacks on a computer server rack installed within a metal enclosure and placed underwater, running trials in a laboratory water tank and just below the surface of a lake. These experimental setups were meant to represent simplified, small-scale versions of an underwater data centre.

They found an audible tone with a frequency of 5 kilohertz – equivalent to a high D note one octave above a piano’s playing range – could disrupt computer drive operations, even from distances of more than 6 metres away.

A commercial speaker playing that tone at 152 decibels underwater – equivalent to about 92 decibels, or the sound of a loud vacuum cleaner in the air – disrupted the computer hard drive operations within just 2.5 minutes. More subtle attacks starting out at lower volumes and gradually rising over time can permanently damage computer drives, says Kevin Butler, also at the University of Florida.

The researchers also simulated how more powerful military-grade sonar could disrupt underwater data centres. Sounds at 220 decibels could create significant vibrations at a distance of 1 kilometre and a depth of 35 metres. This raises the possibility of future sabotage carried out by crewed or autonomous submersibles.

Even natural noises may cause problems for underwater data storage. A blue whale, for example, is capable of vocalising at up to 180 decibels, says Butler.

But one company has tested underwater data centres at depths 3000 metres below the surface and is confident its design can withstand such acoustic attacks.

“We deploy robust, sealed units designed to withstand the harsh underwater environment, including pressure, temperature and corrosion,” says Maxie Reynolds, founder of Subsea Cloud. “This design also inherently protects against acoustic waves which might affect more sensitive, exposed equipment and assets.”

The paper is being presented at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy in San Francisco, California on 20 May.


arXiv DOI: 10.48550/arXiv.2404.11815

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