Microsoft Stores Your Data Under the Sea – Underwater Datacenters

In a years-long experiment, Microsoft proved that datacenter can be moved underwater in a feasible manner and can be a good viable option logistically, environmentally, and economically.

Video: Microsoft

It was the spring of the year 2018 when Microsoft’s research team kicked off an experiment called Project Natick. The team involved sunk an entire Northern Isles datacenter 117 feet deep to the seafloor of Scotland’s Orkney Islands. This was to test how well a self-sustained underwater datacenter can work under these conditions. The datacenter was loaded with 12 racks containing a total of 864 servers and a cooling system infrastructure, all in one cylinder.

The research team reported that for two years, they tested and monitored the performance and reliability of the datacenter’s servers.

The team confirmed their hypothesis that a sealed container on the ocean floor could provide ways to improve the overall reliability of datacenters. On land, 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.

Photo by Frank Betermin / Microsoft

The world’s oceans at depth are consistently cold, offering ready and free access to cooling, which is one of the biggest costs for land-based datacenters. Underwater datacenters could also serve as anchor tenants for marine renewable energy such as offshore wind farms or banks of tidal turbines, allowing the two industries to evolve in lockstep.

According to project lead Ben Cutler, “Our failure rate in the water is one-eighth of what we see on land.” As to why the failure rate was so much lower, Cutler speculates that, “We think it has to do with this nitrogen atmosphere that reduces corrosion and is cool, and people not banging things around.”

For now, the project is being monitored from the ground to test as much as possible before putting a few customers on it to try out the water 😉

The obvious disadvantage being in the water is, it has to be reliable enough to run from the remote location, should not require frequent service, etc.

“We are populating the globe with edge devices, large and small,” said William Chappell, vice president of mission systems for Azure. “To learn how to make datacenters reliable enough not to need human touch is a dream of ours.”

On the other side, the advantage is, it is free from human interference, less chance of a lazy employee destroying something or making chaos. Other advantages include, they don’t require expensive real-estate, they get free cooling from the seawater.

More than half the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the coast. By putting datacenters underwater near coastal cities, data would have a short distance to travel, leading to fast and smooth web surfing, video streaming, and game playing.

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

Exciting times ahead!!!

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Rahul Sharma
Rahul is a technology enthusiast, solutions architect, trainer, and blogger, working on various Microsoft and open source solutions with more than 18 years of industry experience. He specially takes interest in designing enterprise applications, cloud integrations, IoT, and other architecture rich business solutions. Rahul is a guest author with us and shares his knowledge through technology blog posts.
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