Microsoft Finds Underwater Data Centers Practical

Its researchers have pulled their second Project Natick experimental data center out of the ocean in Scotland.

Yevgeniy Sverdlik

September 14, 2020

3 Min Read
Microsoft Finds Underwater Data Centers Practical
The Northern Isles data center was attached to a ballast-filled triangular base for deployment 117 feet deep on the seafloor off the Orkney Islands in Scotland in 2018.Photo by Jonathan Banks

Underwater data centers are a go, Microsoft said Monday, a couple months after its researchers pulled their experimental sealed capsule of a data center out of the ocean off the shores of Orkney Islands, in Scotland, where it had been since spring 2018.

Not only is this submarine data center design feasible and practical, they said, the experiment has demonstrated that servers deployed in a static, dry nitrogen environment fail at a rate that’s 1/8th of the failure rate of servers deployed in a typical data center on dry land, where “corrosion from oxygen and humidity, temperature fluctuations and bumps and jostles from people who replace broken components are all variables that can contribute to equipment failure.”

The Microsoft team behind the experiment (called Project Natick) is already in discussions with the Azure cloud team about using the technology “to serve customers who need to deploy and operate tactical and critical datacenters anywhere in the world.”

The Northern Isles was gleaming white when deployed. Two years underwater provied time for a think coat of algae and barnacles to form on the steel tube.

The Northern Isles was gleaming white when deployed. Two years underwater provied time for a think coat of algae and barnacles to form on the steel tube. Project Natick team members said swift ocean currents at the deployment site limited growth of marine life.

In an interview with DCK back in 2018, after the team submerged the capsule (roughly the length of a shipping container), Ben Cutler, who manages the project, told us his team was also hypothesizing that the deployment method would cost less than building data centers on land. No word yet from Microsoft on whether that’s proven to be the case now that it’s out of the water, but the company said it was still analyzing the data and that more results would be coming.

Related:Why Microsoft Thinks Underwater Data Centers May Cost Less

The Orkney Islands experiment was the second underwater data center submerged as part of Project Natick. The first one was a smaller capsule dunked off the California coast in 2014. The first experiment was meant to show whether the idea was feasible. The second one, called Northern Isles, was meant to show whether the idea was “logistically, environmentally, and economically practical,” the company said in a blog post.

Microsoft’s Northern Isles underwater data center (SSDC-002) facts and figures:

  • Pressure vessel: 12.2m length, 2.8m diameter (about the size of a 40-foot shipping container)

  • Subsea docking structure: 14.3m length, 12.7m width

  • Power load: 240kW

  • Computing infrastructure: 12 racks, 864 Microsoft data center servers with FPGAs and 27.6 petabytes of disk (enough to store 5 million movies)

  • Internal operating environment: 1 atmosphere pressure, dry nitrogen

  • Time to deploy: 90 days from factory to operation

  • Expected length of operation without maintenance: up to 5 years

One of the central theses behind Project Natick has been that since half of the world’s population lives within a couple hundred kilometers of the ocean, since application performance is better when servers are closer to end users, and since securing land and getting permits to build is more complicated on land than at sea, submerging data centers in the ocean, close to population centers, could make a lot of sense.

Related:Microsoft Wants to Patent an Underwater Data Center Reef

There are also environmental benefits. The Northern Isles data center was cooled using seawater (borrowing from submarine vessel designs) and powered entirely by locally generated renewable energy from on-shore wind and solar and off-shore tidal and wave turbines, Microsoft said. It was deployed at the European Marine Energy Centre, which develops experimental renewable energy technologies. One potential deployment option could be collocating underwater data centers with offshore windfarms.

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