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Microsoft finds underwater data centers handy

Undersea data centers are a breeze, Microsoft said Monday, a few months after researchers pulled their experimental sealed capsule of a data center out of the sea off the shores of the Orkney Islands in Scotland, where it had been since spring 2018.

Not only is the design of this submarine data center feasible and practical, the experiment also showed that servers deployed in a static, dry, nitrogen environment are down at a rate of 1/8th the failure rate of servers used in a typical data center on dry land, where “oxygen and moisture corrosion, temperature fluctuations, and bumps and shocks from people replacing defective components are all variables that can contribute to equipment failure.”


The Microsoft team behind the experiment (Project Natick) is already in discussion with the Azure cloud team about using the technology “to serve customers who need to deploy and operate tactical and critical data centers around the world”.

Photo by Jonathan BanksThe northern islands shimmered white in action.  Two years under water left time until a layer of algae and barnacles formed on the steel pipe.

The northern islands shimmered white in action. Two years under water left time before a layer of algae and barnacles formed on the steel tube. Members of the Natick team said that rapid ocean currents at the scene restricted the growth of marine life.

In an interview with DCK in 2018, after the team submerged the capsule (roughly the length of a shipping container), Ben Cutler, who manages the project, told us that his team also hypothesized that the delivery method would cost less than that Creation of data centers on land. No word from Microsoft yet on whether this is the case now that it is out of the water, but the company said it is still analyzing the data and more results would come.

The Orkney Islands Experiment was the second underwater data center to be submerged as part of the Natick project. The first was a smaller capsule that was submerged off the coast of California in 2014. The first experiment should show whether the idea was feasible. The second, called the Northern Isles, should show whether the idea is “logistically, environmentally and economically viable,” the company said in a blog post.

Microsoft Northern Isles Undersea Data Center (SSDC-002) facts and figures:

  • Pressure vessel: 12.2 m long, 2.8 m diameter (about the size of a 40-foot shipping container)
  • Underwater docking structure: 14.3 m length, 12.7 m width
  • Power load: 240 kW
  • Computer infrastructure: 12 racks, 864 Microsoft data center servers with FPGAs and a 27.6 petabyte hard drive (enough to store 5 million films)
  • Internal operating environment: 1 atmospheric pressure, dry nitrogen
  • Lead time: 90 days from factory to operation
  • Estimated service life without maintenance: up to 5 years

One of the central theses behind Project Natick was that half the world’s population lives within a few hundred kilometers of the ocean because application performance is better when servers are closer to the end user, and because land is secured and building permits are granted on land More complicated than at sea, immersing data centers in the ocean near population centers could make a lot of sense.

There are also environmental benefits. The Northern Isles data center was cooled with seawater (borrowed from submarine ship structures) and powered entirely by locally generated renewable energy from wind, solar, and offshore tidal and wave turbines onshore, according to Microsoft. It has been deployed in the European Ocean Energy Center, which is developing experimental renewable energy technologies. One possible deployment option could be to put together underwater data centers with offshore wind farms.

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