Why Microsoft is deploying data centres under the sea

Microsoft data centre
Image credit: Jonathan Banks

Microsoft launched phase 2 of its Project Natick in the spring of 2018, which saw a shipping container-sized data centre lowered 117 feet to the seafloor off Scotland’s Orkney Islands.

The aim of the project was to test ways to improve the overall reliability of data centres, by limiting corrosion from oxygen and humidity, temperature fluctuations and impacts from people who replace broken components, all of which can contribute to equipment failure on land.

According to Microsoft, more than half the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the coast.

Underwater data centres near coastal cities could ensure speedier and smoother web surfing and streaming, and the consistently cool subsurface of seas allows for energy-efficient data centre designs.

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Energy efficiency

Lessons learned from Project Natick are directing conversations and strategies around how to make data centres use energy more sustainably.

According to Microsoft, the Project Natick team selected the Orkney Islands for the Northern Isles deployment in part because the grid there is supplied 100% 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,” said 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.”

Cutler is already thinking of scenarios such as co-locating an underwater data centre with an offshore windfarm. Even in light winds, there would likely be enough power for the data centre.

As a last resort, a powerline from shore could be bundled with the fibre optic cabling needed to transport data.

The Project Natick data centre is equipped with various sensors to monitor server conditions and the environment, including two underwater cameras, which were available as live video streams.

These cameras allowed the team to monitor the surrounding environment from two fixed locations outside the data centre in real-time.

Also, AI Oriented Architecture allowed for detailed monitoring and counting of aquatic life. This data will be used to establish and minimise the environmental impact of the project.

Once the container is retrieved the sea bed is restored to its former state.

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