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.
The Northern Isles deployment confirmed their hypothesis, which could have implications for datacenters on land.
“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.”
Over 3 billion people live within 120 miles of the coast
The underwater datacenter concept was considered a potential way to provide lightning-quick cloud services to coastal populations and save energy.
More than half the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the coast. By putting datacenters underwater near coastal cities, data would have a short distance to travel, leading to fast and smooth web surfing, video streaming and game playing.
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.
Proof of concept
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.”