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Clouds in the ocean: Microsoft announces the viability of underwater data centers

Project Natick, retrieval of vessel Stromness, Orkney.  Microsoft - Tuesday 7th to Wednesday 15th July 2020

Image: Microsoft

In 201

4, Microsoft was convinced that a sealed container on the ocean floor could provide ways to improve the overall reliability of data centers, so in 2015, it tested its first underwater data center.

After working on its design and proving its viability, in 2018 the company implemented a pod full of servers off the coast of Scotland’s Orkney Islands.

The Northern Isles Underwater Data Center was manufactured by Naval Group and its subsidiary Naval Energies. Orkney Island-based Green Marine was also involved and supported Naval Group and Microsoft with the implementation, maintenance, monitoring and retrieval of the data center, which was operated by Microsoft.

The data center was installed at the European Maritime Energy Center, a test site for tidal turbines and wave energy converters.

After a few years of testing, the company has stuck to its call for underwater data centers to be possible as well as logistically, environmentally and economically practical.

See also: Microsoft CEO Nadella: Underwater data centers are the future

In a blog post, the company detailed the retrieval of the underwater data center, which was deployed 117 meters deep to the seabed. The pod contained 864 servers along with associated cooling system infrastructure.

“The consistent cool underground sea also allows for energy-efficient data center designs. For example, they can utilize heat exchange tubes like those found in submarines,” the blog post said.

After collection, the container was cleaned and sent for health inspection. Microsoft said there were a handful of failed servers and related cables, but Ben Cutler, a project manager in Microsoft’s special projects research team currently leading the Underwater Data Center initiative known as Project Natick, claimed the servers in the underwater data center were eight. times more reliable than those on land.

“The team assumes that the nitrogen atmosphere, which is less corrosive than oxygen, and the absence of humans to bump and push components is the main reason for the difference. If the analysis proves to be correct, the team may translate the results into land data centers,” he continued. the blog.

Cutler said the team would now think of scenarios for using underwater data centers, such as co-locating an underwater data center with an offshore wind farm. Other benefits of sustainability may include eliminating the need to use spare parts, he said, noting that the high reliability of the servers meant that the few who failed early could simply be taken offline.

In addition, he said Project Natick demonstrated that data centers could be operated and kept cool without harnessing freshwater resources.

Also see: The Internet of Wild Things: Technology and the Fight Against Loss of Biodiversity and Climate Change (TechRepublic cover story) | Download the free PDF version (TechRepublic)

“Now Microsoft is going down the path to find ways to do this at country data centers,” he said.

With a growing need for edge computing, Microsoft said there is also a growing need to have smaller data centers located closer to customers instead of large inventory data centers.

“We populate the globe with large entities, large and small,” William Chappell, vice president of mission systems, told Azure. “Learning to make data centers reliable enough not to need human touch is a dream for us.”

The Azure team has jumped on board the project, citing the potential to enable Azure to serve customers who need to implement and operate tactical and critical data centers around the world.

The results also inform Microsoft’s sustainability strategy for data center.

In January, Microsoft announced its plan to be carbon negative by 2030. The plan will see Microsoft take responsibility for its carbon footprint by being a voice in lowering emissions, being “founded in science and math”, investing in carbon reduction and removal technology and provides transparency.


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