Microsoft now believes underwater data centres are reliable, practical and energy sustainable, following the retrieval of a prototype from the ocean floor. The test case could have implications for on-land data centres, which are heavy users of power and fresh water.
Microsoft’s test device — a sealed, shipping container-sized data centre codenamed Project Natik — sat on the seafloor off Scotland’s Orkney islands for two years before its retrieval.
Microsoft says the consistently cool underwater temperatures and an ability to control the atmospheric conditions within the device created a more stable and manageable environment.
Before Microsoft deployed the underwater device it was filled with nitrogen, which is less corrosive than oxygen, in hopes of minimising hardware damage. Analysis of the hardware on retrieval showed that the atmospheric change and a lack of people potentially knocking or jostling hardware led to a better failure rate than on-land data centres, according to Microsoft.
“Our failure rate in the water is one-eighth of what we see on land,” says Ben Cutler, a project manager in Microsoft’s Special Projects research group, who leads Project Natick.
“I have an economic model that says if I lose so many servers per unit of time, I’m at least at parity with land,” he adds. “We are considerably better than that.”
Project Natick began as an employee idea in 2014, moving to an initial test in the Pacific in 2015.
“The team hypothesised that a sealed container on the ocean floor could provide ways to improve the overall reliability of data centres,” Microsoft’s John Roach writes in a company blog post.
“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.
“The Northern Isles deployment confirmed their hypothesis, which could have implications for data centres on land.”
Scotland’s Orkney Island was chosen because the area is a well-known testing ground for tidal turbines and wave energy converters. The energy grid there is also supplied 100 per cent by wind and solar as well as experimental green energy technologies under development at the European Marine Energy Centre.
“We have been able to run really well on what most land-based data centres consider an unreliable grid,” says Spencer Fowers, a principal member of technical staff for Microsoft’s Special Projects research group.
“We are hopeful that we can look at our findings and say maybe we don’t need to have quite as much infrastructure focused on power and reliability.”
According to Microsoft, Project Natik has demonstrated the viability of co-locating underwater data centres with offshore wind farms, which it says would likely provide enough power for the data centre.