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Microsoft Testing the Sea with Underwater Data Centers

Preparing Microsoft Data Center for Submersion Underwater

Tech giant Microsoft is dipping its toes in the water through a venture dubbed as Project Natick. The thrust of this project is to mass produce and install self-sustaining underwater data centers. Now on its second phase, this project, if proven successful will address a number of issues. These include high carbon footprint, latency in the delivery of services and accessibility of information to its customers.

Why Drop Massive Underwater Data Centers?

Data centers consume so much energy. Two percent of the world’s total electricity consumption comes from these massive data centers. Their carbon footprint is also almost as high as the airline industry.

Servers and data centers need consistent cooling and ventilation as they generate so much heat. An increase in the temperature can cause these servers and data centers to crash. Technologies and companies rely heavily on these data centers and interruptions due to servers crashing is unacceptable. The growing cost of air-conditioning, however,  has forced Microsoft in finding alternative ways of cooling their servers.

Additionally, according to a recent event at Bisnow’s Data Center Investment Conference & Expo South, the future of data centers is very big indeed.  With the evolution of AI, machine learning and other factors, roughly 600 zettabytes of new data is created each year (that is 600 trillion gigabytes). To put that in perspective, it is about 200% more traffic than current data centers can handle. With the explosion of data, the industry is projecting a growth of roughly 4,000 new facilities. This equates on average to 200K SF, 25 megawatt facilities — by 2020.

Microsoft’s Answer

In 2016, Microsoft sunk one of its servers underwater in the Pacific Ocean, off the Central California coast near San Luis Obispo. A prototype steel capsule with an eight-foot diameter was submerged 30 feet underwater for 105 days. Initially, this idea was far-out, extreme and radical. But according to Ben Cutler, a Microsoft engineer who worked on the Project Natick system, “As you think more about it, it actually makes a lot of sense.”

Two years since the launching of the project’s initial prototype, Microsoft is now working on the 2nd phase of the venture. The location is near Orkney Islands in Scotland.

A Closer Look at Project Natick

According to Eric Peterson, Principal Infrastructure Engineer of Microsoft Datacenter Advanced Development, Project Natick – true lights out underwater data centers are the first of its kind.

Uniquely, a lights-out data center is a server that is physically or geographically isolated at an organization’s headquarters. It thereby limits environmental fluctuations and human access. Unnecessary energy used for lighting and for maintaining a proper climate around frequently used doors can be saved by going lights out.

For the second phase of the project, Microsoft collaborated with the Naval Group of France. They will design the vessel that will house the servers. The vessel has two shells. First is the external shell which is resistant to pressure, and there is an internal payload that contains the servers. The 40-foot long structure, capable of housing 864 servers is powered by a combination of renewable energy – solar, wind power and offshore tidal and wave energy. It is, therefore, a strategic move to host this venture in Orkney. The European Marine Energy Centre is  in Scotland. The European Marine Energy Centre is the largest test site globally for offshore renewable energies like tide and wave energy, placing Europe at the helm of renewable energy.

Soon plunging into the ocean of Underwater data centers

Major internet and data companies are building their data centers in locations with cooler climate and with existing solar and wind farms. However, because of the distance from these data centers, customers experience delays and latency in the delivery of services. It is worth mentioning that almost half of the world’s total population live within 100 kilometers from the coastline. With over 2 billion people living along the shoreline, Microsoft aims to bring the cloud closer to billions of people. This project would like to bring the underwater data centers closer to the customers. This is to address latency and delay in the processing of requests. Additionally, these underwater data centers naturally chill by the ocean water. These are also self-sustaining and can operate for up to five years without the need for maintenance.

The next few years after the deployment of these vessels will focus on gathering data. Information on power consumption, data performance, and other insights will be collated as basis for the project’s viability for mass production.

Project Natick is Microsoft’s answer to the call for data-driven companies to use renewable energy and minimize carbon footprint. This project also fits into the company’s overall corporate strategy of helping solve global environmental challenges while accelerating innovation.


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