Microsoft Looks to Sustainable Underwater Data Centers

Microsoft Looks to Sustainable Underwater Data Centres

Microsoft has released a proof of concept for more efficient and sustainable underwater data centers after a two-year experiment with a submerged data center in Scotland. 

To get to this point, for the past two years, Microsoft has been studying its proof of concept for underwater data centers – nicknamed Project Natick – in the Orkney Islands off Scotland’s coast. 

Microsoft says that these underwater data centers have not only proved more efficient and sustainable, they’re also more reliable than land-based data centers. 

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Microsoft anticipated that in a sealed container, combined with the absence of humidity, oxygen, temperature changes and vibrations from its engineers, underwater data centers would provide a more reliable and sustainable output utilising the heat-exchange from the seafloor; similar to plumbing on submarines.   

Microsoft submerged a data center 35-meters underwater on Scotland’s Orkney Islands, where engineers ran tests and monitored the data center’s servers over a two-year period. The data center contained 864 servers with cooling infrastructure, in a nitrogen-filled atmosphere. 

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Microsoft Looks to Sustainable Underwater Data Centres

It now says that this is a reliable proof of concept, with a number of environmental and economic arguments that validate the concept’s roll-out. 

“We are populating the globe with edge devices, large and small,” says William Chappel, vice president of mission systems for Azure, Microsoft’s cloud-based network. “To learn how to make datacenters reliable enough not to need human touch is a dream of ours.” 

The idea was first presented back in 2014 during ThinkWeek, and initially tested 12-months later with a near four-month test in the Pacific Ocean in 2015. 

Microsoft has previously pledged to make its cloud storage network 100% renewable by 2025, replenish 100% of the water used in drought-prone areas, attain zero-waste certification by 2022 and achieve net-zero deforestation for the construction of data centers in the future. 

Microsoft says that considering more than 50% of the Earth’s population resides within 200km of a coastline, positioning underwater data centers close to the coast would provide reliable, high-speed connections with reportedly fewer issuers than land-based data centers. 

Microsoft Looks to Sustainable Underwater Data Centres

The company chose the Ornkey Islands specifically because of its 100% renewable power supply with a grid running entirely on solar and wind power. Spencer Fowers, principal member of technical staff for Microsoft’s Special Projects group says that “we have been able to run really well on what most land-based data centers consider an unreliable grid.” 

“We are hopeful that we can look at our findings and say maybe we don’t need to have quite as much infrastructure focussed on power and reliability.” 

Microsoft says that a design deployment like this eliminates the need for replacement parts, due to the way in which servers inside a ‘lights-out’ data center are simply swapped every five years. 

Project Manager of Microsoft’s Special Projects research group and leader of Project Natick, Ben Cutler has said that “we are now at the point of trying to harness what we have done as opposed to feeling the need to go and prove out some more.”

“We have done what we need to do. Natick is a key building block for the company to use if it is appropriate,” Cutler added. 

“Our failure rate in the water is one-eight of what we see on land,” he said, also stating that “I have an economic model that says if I lose so many servers per unit of time, I’m at least at parity with the land… we are considerably better than that,” Cutler said. 

Vice president of mission systems for Azure, William Chappell added that “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.” 

Microsoft Looks to Sustainable Underwater Data Centres

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