In the future, are we going to sink our data centers to the sea floor instead of building them on land? In other words: are we putting the cloud in the sea? The first results of an experiment by tech giant Microsoft show such a data center underwater eight times more reliable than above.
More than two years ago, Microsoft sank a data center to the bottom of the North Sea off the coast of the Orkney Islands above Scotland. It involved 864 servers and 27.6 petabytes of disk space, or no less than 27.6 million gigabytes, good for the storage of almost 5 million movies. Everything was packed in a steel cylinder filled with dry nitrogen. The tube was brought up again in July.
Microsoft’s experiment was part of Project Natick, which already saw the light in 2014. The investigation into the data center is still ongoing, but the first results are positive. “It shows that the underwater data center had only one eighth of the outages than what we see on land,” said Ben Cutler, director of Project Natick.
“In general, the conclusion is that underwater data centers are feasible in practice, also logistically, ecologically and economically.” It could also be useful for remote coastal towns, which now mostly rely on centralized data centers hundreds of miles away.
It seems like a crazy idea to dump electrical equipment in seawater, but there is a good reason why data centers under water appear to perform eight times better. That’s because, Cutler explains, “computers don’t actually work that well in the same environment people live in.” Energy is needed to cool computer equipment. Paul Johnston, an expert on the so-called ‘cloud’ that stores billions of data from all of us, data centers are responsible for nearly two percent of the global carbon footprint. Around the world, there are already about 18 million servers that are part of data centers, and that park is only expanding.
“Almost 20 percent of the energy used by onshore data centers is used to keep things cool with air conditioning and fresh water supplies,” said Johnston. He is full of praise for the project. “What Microsoft has done is groundbreaking. Natural seawater acts as a coolant and replaces the artificial pumping of air. This can yield ecological benefits. ” The electricity that Microsoft’s underwater data center needed was obtained entirely from wind and solar energy.
The conclusion that underwater data centers are feasible in practice, also logistically, ecologically and economically
Good for biodiversity
According to Cutler, such an underwater data center can be operational faster than one can be built on land. In less than 90 days, it can go from the factory to the seabed, he claims. In addition, he is confident that the model is also cost-effective. He does not see repairs at a depth of 50 meters as a possible problem. Every five years, the data center can be brought out for maintenance and if a server should fail quickly, it simply has to be disconnected. “It has been designed so that the reliability is high enough to last for years without maintenance,” said Cutler.
And what about life in the ocean? Orkney ecologist Andrew Want is not afraid of a negative impact. According to him, it can even promote biodiversity, because the sunken tube will be turned into an artificial reef by all kinds of organisms that will attach themselves to the layer of microscopic bacteria on the structure. Fish also like such a solid object on the ocean floor. And the heating associated with a data center seems negligible in the sea.
All ideal, it seems. Still, Ben Cutler sees underwater data centers as a supplement to the existing data centers on land, rather than an overall replacement. His team from Project Natick is still investigating why the servers showed defects underwater, even though there were eight times fewer.
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