“We’ve conquered lands and reached for the skies, so why not an underwater data center?”
That was probably what went through Microsoft’s Sean James’ mind when he conceived the idea of underwater data centers in the company’s 2014 ThinkWeek, an event where Microsoft employees gather to share fresh, unconventional ideas.
Fast forward six years, Microsoft has just fished out 864 servers from its underwater data center, 117 feet under the sea.
As the world becomes more digitally connected than ever before, the search for more space to house data centers seems like an inevitability. The sky is literally the limit if you want to build a data center on land, and land scarcity is already a long-existing problem.
On the other hand, the Earth is 71% water, which presents a gold mine of opportunities to build data centers off-land.
Data centers heat up fast, so deep ocean water could function as a free cooling system, allowing them to be more energy-efficient. With that, Microsoft launched Project Natick, which consisted of two phases.
In Phase 1, from August to November 2015, Microsoft sank a data center one kilometre off the coast of California to test the feasibility of this project. Long story short, the plan was feasible.
In Phase 2, May 2018, a vessel sealed with data center servers was dunked deep under the seabed of Scotland’s Orkney Islands. The vessel’s construction, from factory to deployment, took less than 90 days. Two years later, in September 2020, the vessel was hauled onshore and the data center was retrieved.
Aside from algae and barnacles, the research team at Microsoft found that only eight of 864 underwater data center servers malfunctioned. This is a failure rate that is one-eighth of that on land.
“We were pretty impressed with how clean it was. It did not have a lot of hardened marine growth on it; it was mostly sea scum,” said Spencer Fowers, a Principal Member of Technical Staff for Microsoft’s Special Projects Research Group.
The vessels were pumped with nitrogen beforehand and because of this, the underwater data center also proved to be more durable than its on-land data centers, as oxygen changes the humidity and fluctuates temperatures on-land, which quickens the debilitation of data centers stored in buildings. The increased durability ultimately means lower maintenance costs for data center operators, and the total cost of ownership for customers by extension.
“We are populating the globe with edge devices, large and small. To learn how to make data centers reliable enough not to need human touch is a dream of ours,” said William Chappell, the Vice President of Mission Systems for Microsoft Azure.
In short, placing data centers underwater is logistically, economically and environmentally practical.
How might an underwater data center impact the environment?
The lessons learnt from Project Natick informed Microsoft’s data center sustainability strategy around energy, waste and water, said Ben Cutler, a project manager in Microsoft’s Special Projects research group who leads Project Natick.
But what was left behind Orkney after retrieving the vessel? Microsoft is proud to report that the sea bed is being restored to the same state it was before deployment. And to remain environmentally friendly, the data center’s components, including its steel vessel and heat exchangers, will also be recycled.
Project Natick is a real-life case of how we are able to use what we have to carve out a more sustainable future. If all data centers eventually go under the deep blue sea, governments may be able to repurpose used land.
As optimistic as Project Natick may be, a few questions linger.
The long-term impacts of underwater data centers is not yet known. Microsoft expects its underwater data centers to survive for five years before needing any maintenance or replacement work. While this is a commendable length, the costs involved are not yet known.
And what happens if all data centers on Earth go underwater? Will it affect the temperature of the ocean? That, too, is not yet known.
This does not mean that there is no cause for a mini celebration.
At this point, you might be wondering what kind of information Natick’s data centers were processing whilst under water. Turns out, they were actually helping to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.
When the pandemic broke out in Europe, the data centers were re-tasked to provide support for global distributed computing group Folding At Home. The data centers helped the organisations process information that would help in understanding the viral proteins that cause the virus, and design therapeutics to stop them.
Before the pandemic, Natick helped IBM-sponsored World Community Grid in ‘big science problems’ research, including finding ways to detect and treat cancer.
Microsoft’s Project Natick offers us a glimpse into what is possible when we have a vision to do better. Hopefully in the near future, we will be able to accomplish more with less.
“The fact that they were very quickly able to deploy it and it has worked as long as it has and it has the level of encryption on the signals going to it combines to tell a pretty compelling vision of the future,” Mr. Chappell said.
Digital hubs facing land scarcity may benefit: a look at Singapore
This impressive result could be immensely beneficial to land sparse countries such as Singapore.
A country where you could drive from the East to the West in an hour and a population of nearly 6 million, maximising land usage is constantly at the forefront of many of Singapore’s major policy decisions.
Major tech players such as Equinix and Google have been building their data centers upwards rather than out, but adding more high-rise buildings to an island that is already packed with skyscrapers would soon prove to be an infeasible effort.
To solve this dilemma, it’s not just Microsoft who has been looking to the sea. Keppel Data Centres recently sealed a deal with Singapore to plan a floating data center park, using the surrounding sea water as a cooling system.
As Singapore is surrounded by the South China Sea, part of this deal bears some similarity with the underwater data center project, so diving underwater might just be the next best step.
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