Microsoft’s underwater data center

Two years ago, Microsoft sank a data center off the coast of Orkney in a wild experiment. That data center has now been retrieved from the ocean floor, and Microsoft researchers are assessing how it has performed, and what they can learn from it about energy efficiency.

No humans, few failures

Their first conclusion is that the cylinder packed with servers had a lower failure rate than a conventional data center. When the container was hauled off the seabed around half a mile offshore after being placed there in May 2018, just eight out of the 855 servers on board had failed. That compares very well with a conventional data center.”Our failure rate in the water is one-eighth of what we see on land,” says Ben Cutler, who has led what Microsoft calls Project Natick. The team is speculating that the greater reliability may be connected to the fact that there were no humans on board, and that nitrogen rather than oxygen was pumped into the capsule.

We think it has to do with this nitrogen atmosphere that reduces corrosion and is cool, and people not banging things around,” Mr. Cutler says. Orkney was chosen for the trial by Microsoft, partly because it was a center for renewable energy research in a place where the climate was temperate – perhaps even chilly. The idea was that the cost of cooling computers would be lower if they were underwater.

The white cylinder emerged from the cold waters with a coating of algae, barnacles, and sea anemones after a day-long operation. But inside, the data center was functioning well – and is now being closely examined so that the research team can learn more. As more and more of our data is stored in the cloud, there is growing concern about the vast energy demands of data centers.

Reliably green

Project Natick was partly about working out whether clusters of small underwater data centers for short-term use might be a commercial proposition, but also an attempt to learn broader lessons about energy efficiency in cloud computing. All of Orkney’s electricity comes from wind and solar power, but there were no issues in keeping the underwater datacenter supplied with power.” We have been able to run really well on what most land-based data centers consider an unreliable grid,” says Spencer Fowers, one of the technical team on Project Natick.”We are hopeful that we can look at our findings and say maybe we don’t need to have quite as much infrastructure focused on power and reliability.”

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