A radical new experiment from Microsoft brings a change and a new level of thinking. The software giant's underwater data center trials have attracted the attention of environmentalists and industry watchers.
Microsoft’s Project Natick just completed three-months of operating a functional data center underwater. The vessel was operated on the seafloor about half a mile off the Pacific coast of the United States. An underwater data center is a good way, according to Microsoft, of achieving this as it negates the need for expensive mechanical cooling systems. The software company is hoping that if such facilities can be paired up with hydroelectric power systems, it could also stand to be more environmentally friendly than traditional land-based builds.
With half the world’s population living within 200km of an ocean, subsea builds have the potential to significantly cut down data transfer times to user sites.
The project was recently launched off the coast of Northern Scotland in Orkney. Orkney was also chosen because of their abundance of renewable energy – readily available to power the experiment. They partnered with the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) who’re based in Orkney to develop the experiment. Project Natick involves submerging a sealed datacenter with only power and data connections back to the shore. Microsoft removes the oxygen and humidity from the environment, they think the risk of failure is a lot lower due to lack of corrosion.
David Barker, technical director at Surrey-based data center and colocation provider 4D, says that, from a latency and logistics perspective, the research Microsoft is doing makes a lot of sense. “The vast majority of the Earth’s surface is covered with water and all international fiber routes run along the seabed. By deploying a data center on the seabed you get around some issues with building a facility on land and at scale, such as having to build away from major metro areas where there is little fiber connectivity to keep land costs low.”
According to a New York Times report Microsoft has designs on creating another data center that will be around three times the size of its first prototype in tandem with a company that specializes in hydroelectric power systems.
The company has revealed that it hopes, in time, that similar data center builds could be deployed under the sea for up to five years at a time, in line with the average lifespan of the equipment inside.
The Project Natick data center has 12 racks containing a total of 864 servers and associated cooling system infrastructure. The submerging part of the project was handled by the Naval Group, a 400-year old French company. Using a heat-exchange process mainly used for cooling submarines, Naval Group shipped data center to Scotland on a flatbed truck. In the water, the data center is partially submerged and held in place with 10 winches and cranes.
While being deployed, a remotely operated vehicle went down 117 feet to the seafloor and grabbed hold of a waiting cable containing fiber optic and power wiring. Once grabbed and plugged in, the data center came to life.
During the three-month trial, the company used a series of sensors to remotely monitor conditions inside and out of the vessel, in case any maintenance issues cropped up, as it is designed to be unmanned.
It’s an interesting experiment and I look forward to seeing the results in a few years. Microsoft reckons that it’ll be a lot more cost effective and easier to add additional underwater pods as demand for processing increases. This is a good thing, as our demands for ever faster internet services keeps growing. They estimate around 90 days to deploy an underwater data center whereas it could take years to accomplish the same on land.
Here are some more advantages that come with these type of data centers -
It takes an average of two years to build a conventional data center. But, with the undersea option, a data center could be ready within just 90 days.
These data centers are unmanned, so it's possible to alter chemical processes to counter problems such as corrosion.
Undersea data centers can offer great customization for customers, as they are easier to deploy. In fact, it is expected to open up possibilities for providing support to single events such as world cup sporting events. Also, it can be a blessing for coordinating humanitarian efforts.
Companies today spend billions of dollars in setting up and maintaining data centers. This cost can go down with undersea centers, as the operational costs and energy bills will be greatly reduced.
It is estimated that undersea data servers can last up to 10 years because of better conditions. As a result, the cadence with which we replace data centers will go down drastically, and this means smaller landfills.
More than half the world's population live within 120 miles off a sea coast, so it makes sense to have data centers close to where we live, as this can result in faster data transmissions and better rate of responsiveness.
This Underwater Data Center also has some Pitfalls. Here they are -
A sad fact of life is that hardware fails all the time. When something breaks, the logistics of submerging a staff to get to the facility for component fixing will be difficult, or outright impossible. Soon, a prerequisite to getting on a data center’s IT staff may be a scuba diving license.
These data centers would have to be built to go without maintenance for years, something that doesn’t seem feasible at this moment of time, especially if a leak forms. You can kiss those servers goodbye.
Another argument against undersea operations is that it generates noise that in turn can affect the communication patterns of marine life. At the current levels, undersea data centers may not cause much disruption, but when we start to put servers over a wider area, this is something that has to be looked into.
Unlike land, objects in the sea can be quickly colonized by sea creatures. If you leave a datacenter on the ocean bed for a year, there's always a possibility for marine creatures to live on it. Sea plants, algae, and even corals can quickly take over these machines, and this is a factor that needs to be considered, too.
It needs advanced sensors and IoT applications to monitor or repair these data centers, as they are unmanned. This problem would also require developments in sensor technology.
Many companies are making rapid progress in addressing these roadblocks and creating the right environment for deploying undersea data centers. Project Natick, for example, is actively exploring the possibility of using undersea data centers.