Microsoft retrieves its experimental underwater data center
Data centers are fast becoming one of the most power-hungry industries, since they require such heavy-duty cooling and maintenance. Microsoft has now finished a two-year test of an unconventional solution – dropping a data center to the bottom of the sea – and found that it was more reliable than a similar land-based facility.
This milestone marks the end of Phase 2 of Project Natick, Microsoft’s long-running experiment with ocean-cooled data centers. The first phase took place over three months in 2015 off the Californian coast, and it was followed in early 2018 by a larger test facility dunked into the sea near the Orkney Islands of Scotland.
And now, after two years on the sea floor, this second phase facility has been hauled back to the surface, cleaned and examined. The 40-ft (12-m)-long container had been sitting 117 ft (36 m) below the waves, packing 12 server racks carrying 864 servers. The inside was deprived of oxygen and instead filled with dry nitrogen, and the servers were cooled by seawater pumped through radiators behind the racks and back out into the sea.
The idea was that a cool, stable environment like this would remove many of the disturbances faced by land-based data centers, including humidity, fluctuating temperatures, oxygen corrosion, and bumps by people wandering around the facility. In theory, the underwater servers should last longer than their landlubber counterparts.
And sure enough, the hypothesis held true. The team found that the failure rate of the servers from the sea was only one eighth that of a similar land-based facility. Air samples were taken before it was opened, so it can be determined how gases normally released from the equipment may affect the operating environment. The few failed servers and cables were packaged up and sent back to Microsoft HQ to determine cause of death.
The team says that the project appears to have successfully demonstrated that the concept is logistically, environmentally and economically viable. The lessons learned here will inform future data center designs, and soon networks of these underwater data centers could be powering cloud-based services such as Microsoft’s own Azure.
The team discusses the project in the video below.