Microsoft’s Project Natick: The Underwater Data Center of the Future

    When you think of underwater, deep-sea adventures, what is something that comes to mind? Colorful plants, odd looking sea creatures, and maybe even a shipwreck or two; but what about a data center? Moving forward, under-water datacenters may become the norm, and not so much an anomaly. Back in 2018, Microsoft sunk an entire data center to the bottom of the Scottish sea, plummeting 864 servers and 27.6 petabytes of storage. After two years of sitting 117 feet deep in the ocean, Microsoft’s Project Natick as it’s known, has been brought to the surface and deemed a success.

    What is Project Natick?

     

    Microsoft’s Project Natick was thought up back in 2015 when the idea of submerged servers could have a significant impact on lowering energy usage. When the original hypothesis came to light, Microsoft it immersed a data center off the coast of California for several months as a proof of concept to see if the computers would even endure the underwater journey. Ultimately, the experiment was envisioned to show that portable, flexible data center placements in coastal areas around the world could prove to scale up data center needs while keeping energy and operation costs low. Doing this would allow companies to utilize smaller data centers closer to where customers need them, instead of routing everything to centralized hubs. Next, the company will look into the possibilities of increasing the size and performance of these data centers by connecting more than one together to merge their resources.

    What We Learned from Microsoft’s Undersea Experiment

    After two years of being submerged, the results of the experiment not only showed that using offshore underwater data centers appears to work well in regards to overall performance, but also discovered that the servers contained within the data center proved to be up to eight times more reliable than their above ground equivalents. The team of researchers plan to further examine this phenomenon and exactly what was responsible for this greater reliability rate. For now, steady temperatures, no oxygen corrosion, and a lack of humans bumping into the computers is thought to be the reason. Hopefully, this same outcome can be transposed to land-based server farms for increased performance and efficiency across the board.

    Additional developments consisted of being able to operate with more power efficiency, especially in regions where the grid on land is not considered reliable enough for sustained operation. It also will take lessons on renewability from the project’s successful deployment, with Natick relying on wind, solar, and experimental tidal technologies. As for future underwater servers, Microsoft acknowledged that the project is still in the infant stages. However, if it were to build a data center with the same capabilities as a standard Microsoft Azure it would require multiple vessels.

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    The Benefits of Submersible Data Centers

     

    The benefits of using a natural cooling agent instead of energy to cool a data center is an obvious positive outcome from the experiment. When Microsoft hauled its underwater data center up from the bottom of the North Sea and conducted some analysis, researchers also found the servers were eight time more reliable than those on land.

    The shipping container sized pod that was recently pulled from 117 feet below the North Sea off Scotland’s Orkney Islands was deployed in June 2018. Throughout the last two years, researchers observed the performance of 864 standard Microsoft data center servers installed on 12 racks inside the pod. During the experiment they also learned more about the economics of modular undersea data centers, which have the ability to be quickly set up offshore nearby population centers and need less resources for efficient operations and cooling. 

    Natick researchers assume that the servers benefited from the pod’s nitrogen atmosphere, being less corrosive than oxygen. The non-existence of human interaction to disrupt components also likely added to increased reliability.

    The North Sea-based project also exhibited the possibility of leveraging green technologies for data center operations. The data center was connected to the local electric grid, which is 100% supplied by wind, solar and experimental energy technologies. In the future, Microsoft plans to explore eliminating the grid connection altogether by co-locating a data center with an ocean-based green power system, such as offshore wind or tidal turbines.

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