As dawn broke on an early June morning, engineers, computer scientists and reporters gathered in Orkney, a remote group of islands off the north coast of Scotland, to witness the launch of Microsoft’s latest experiment in data center innovation.
As part of the software and cloud computing group’s Project Natick, a watertight cylinder about the size of a shipping container packed with 864 servers was lowered to the bottom of the sea and secured to a rock 117 feet below the surface.
With up to 40% of the energy used by data centers going on cooling servers, the US group hopes that locating them underwater will use the colder sea temperatures as a natural coolant, saving on energy bills and also carbon emissions. Microsoft plans for this capsule to remain on the sea floor for up to five years.
Microsoft Research’s Ben Cutler notes that the vast majority of the world’s population lives within 200 kilometers of the ocean, while the company’s strategy is to locate its cloud servers near major population centers in order to maintain low levels of latency â€“ the time it takes to transfer data.
The combination of the cooling effect of the sea and the potential to power data centers using renewable wave or wind energy have prompted the selection of the Orkney site, since the area is a major center for renewable energy research.
As the world becomes ever more data-hungry â€“ driven by demand to share photos on social media, stream videos and games, and watch viral clips on YouTube, as well as the requirements of business and e-commerce â€“ computing needs are increasingly being met in the cloud, which despite its ethereal name mostly entails huge data center structures containing rows upon rows of server stacks. Global real estate group CBRE says $20 billion was invested in data centers in North America in 2017 alone.
Data centers are huge power consumers, requiring energy both to run the equipment they house and for the air conditioning to prevent the servers from overheating. Research by the European Commission suggests that the information and communications technology industry as a whole creates up to 2% of the world’s carbon emissions, and data centers have fastest-growing carbon footprint in the sector.
In addition, land-based data centers take years to build. One of Microsoft’s hopes for Project Natick is that, if the economics stack up, it will be able to deploy marine server centers in as little as 90 days, grouping capsules together for scale.
Rob Johnson, chief executive of Vertiv, which provides infrastructure to support data centers, told delegates to the Datacloud Europe event in Monaco in early June that going modular is currently the biggest trend in the industry.
Data in a Cold Climate
â€œPeople aren’t wanting to build a large, 40 [megawatt] facility at once,â€ he says. â€œThey’d rather go for 2 MW or 3 MW chunks at a time using the stock available so they can get them running.â€
Microsoft’s underwater pod is not the first time that natural cooling has been tested. Colder northern climates in countries including Iceland, Norway and Canada are already popular locations for big server hubs.
The biggest technology and media companies are seeking to improve the energy efficiency of their data centers. A common cooling method involves using evaporative processes, where heat is removed simply by evaporating water within an airstream â€“ much like sweating in humans and other mammals.
This month Facebook announced a new system for cooling its centers, having previously built them mostly in cooler climates. The social media group says the new system, which is based on evaporation technology that produces cold water rather than air, will enable it to cool facilities efficiently in extreme environments, such as arid, dusty or humid locations that were previously considered impractical.
In an earlier phase of its deep sea experiment, Microsoft sank a capsule of servers in the Pacific Ocean for about five months. It found the pod was quickly colonized by marine life, increased the temperature of the surrounding waters only marginally, and created minimal noise pollution.
The Orkney data center, which contains 12 racks of servers with enough capacity to store five million movies, is connected to an undersea power cable and powered by renewable energy sources on the surface.
Into Mass Production?
The 40-foot-long pod has been constructed using submarine compression technology, contains no oxygen to prevent corrosion, and is designed to survive underwater for up to five years. The downside is that if the servers fail they cannot be repaired.
Depending on how long it remains operational, the pod will then be brought back up, fitted with more machines and redeployed.
If Project Natick proves financially viable, it will be up to Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing team to bring more undersea centers into mass production.