Telecommunications

Microsoft's undersea data center uses the ocean to keep its cool

The Project Natick vessel – named Leona Philpot, after a character in the game Halo – is lowered into the Pacific
The Project Natick vessel – named Leona Philpot, after a character in the game Halo – is lowered into the Pacific
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A server rack is installed within the Project Natick vessel
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A server rack is installed within the Project Natick vessel
The Project Natick vessel is retrieved after its three-month trial
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The Project Natick vessel is retrieved after its three-month trial
The Project Natick vessel – named Leona Philpot, after a character in the game Halo – is lowered into the Pacific
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The Project Natick vessel – named Leona Philpot, after a character in the game Halo – is lowered into the Pacific

Although many people may think that cloud computing exists purely in cyberspace, it does in fact have a physical home – data centers located around the world, each one full of linked servers. These data centers use a lot of power, they create a lot of heat, and it helps if they're close to populated areas. While we've already seen some creative approaches to meeting these needs, Microsoft recently announced that it's tried something else yet … it anchored an unmanned data center to the bottom of the sea.

Called Project Natick, the 2015 experiment involved housing a data center inside a watertight 38,000-lb (17,237-kg) cylindrical vessel measuring approximately 10 x 7 feet (3 x 2 m). Anchored over half a mile (0.8 km) off the US Pacific coast, the unit used as much computing power as 300 desktop PCs.

It spent three months underwater starting last August, run and monitored from shore by remote control. All of its cooling needs were met simply by the cold seawater surrounding it, which drew heat away through heat exchangers on the vessel's outer steel shell. Although it was powered by the local electrical grid, such underwater data centers could conceivably be run off of renewable sources such as wave or tidal power.

A server rack is installed within the Project Natick vessel
A server rack is installed within the Project Natick vessel

Given that much of the world's population lives in coastal areas, undersea data centers could be located close to the people using them, without taking up space on land. This is an important consideration, as internet latency times increase with distance from data centers.

Additionally, the Project Natick vessel took only 90 days to build, then was operational almost as soon as it was submerged and powered up – no buildings needed to be constructed.

Plans now call for another trial, in which a vessel four times as large may spend an entire year underwater. It will have 20 times the compute power of the current version, and may be powered by renewable sources. Ultimately, it is hoped that such data centers could remain submerged for five years at a time.

More information on Project Natick is available in the video below.

Sources: Microsoft, Project Natick via Popular Science

Microsoft's underwater datacenter: Project Natick

3 comments
Daishi
Rock scissors paper for who is stuck doing an RMA in january in this. In all seriousness though this could make sense for a lot of the same reasons nuclear power plants are often built near water. It might be easier to submerge part of the data center rather than the entire thing or pump some of the water. There is a company named EvapCo that makes a popular line of cooling towers where they mist water down through the top over a bunch of radiators, and then recycle what doesn't evaporate back into the system. Even without salt water rust is (eventually) an issue. An alternative is you could put just the heat exchanger in the water and pump refrigerant through it but that could be a disaster if/when it leaks. It probably makes more sense to just follow the way nuclear power plants are designed where the external cold water source is pumped into the facility: http://i.imgur.com/0ptZ125.jpg The only real difference is instead of cooling steam heated by nuclear rods it would be cooling pressurized (heated) refrigerant from a heat pump compressor. It would be cool if you could use it for desalinization too but most likely you wouldn't get enough evaporated water out of the process because it wouldn't get hot enough. There have been lots of proposals for cooling data centers but most people probably didn't predict we'd still be using the same methods for this long.
notarichman
five years because of sealife? corrosion? or testing purposes? metal in the ocean can cause corrosion for other metal objects nearby...such as marinas. heating the water may support sealife in the area, but could change the nearby environment for other, existing sealife.
telocity
A series of these could be used to pre-heat the water for desalination plant. two intake pipes one to house the data centers as water flows by, the other in case the data centers need to be worked on/replaced.
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