NEWS: Microsoft Finds Underwater Datacenters Are Reliable, Practical And Use Energy Sustainably04 December 2020
Members of the Project Natick team power wash the Northern Isles underwater datacenter, which was retrieved from the seafloor off the Orkney Islands in Scotland. Two years underwater provided time for a thin coat of algae and barnacles to form on the steel tube, and for sea anemones to grow to cantaloupe size in the sheltered nooks of its ballast-filled triangular base. Photo by Jonathan Banks.
Earlier this summer, marine specialists reeled up a shipping-container-size datacenter coated in algae, barnacles and sea anemones from the seafloor off Scotland’s Orkney Islands.
The retrieval launched the final phase of a years-long effort that proved the concept of underwater datacenters is feasible, as well as logistically, environmentally and economically practical.
Microsoft’s Project Natick team deployed the Northern Isles datacenter 117 feet deep to the seafloor in spring 2018. For the next two years, team members tested and monitored the performance and reliability of the datacenter’s servers.
The team hypothesized 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.
“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.”
The underwater datacenter concept splashed onto the scene at Microsoft in 2014 during ThinkWeek, an event that gathers employees to share out-of-the-box ideas. The concept was considered a potential way to provide lightning-quick cloud services to coastal populations and save energy. The consistently cool subsurface seas also allow for energy-efficient datacenter designs. For example, they can leverage heat-exchange plumbing such as that found on submarines.
Microsoft’s Project Natick team proved the underwater datacenter concept was feasible during a 105-day deployment in the Pacific Ocean in 2015. Phase II of the project included contracting with marine specialists in logistics, ship building and renewable energy to show that the concept is also practical.
“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.”
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