Microsoft states that the test of its underwater data center was a success, it uses energy in a sustainable way and can reduce latency by bringing cloud services closer to customers
Submerged in the sea in Scotland in 2018 as part of the Natick project, Microsoft's autonomous underwater data center resurfaced this summer.
Microsoft spent the summer taking stock of its experience and said Monday that the test of its underwater data center was a success. The recovery of the center marks the beginning of the final phase of the Microsoft Project Natick research initiative, which explores the concept of deploying sealed autonomous servers in the sea to replace traditional land-based data centers.
More than half of the world's population lives near the coast. By installing datacenters in containers near coastal cities, data will have a limited distance to travel to reach communities. The goal is to improve the experience of web browsing, video streaming, online gaming, as well as providing authentic experiences for AI technologies. For example, two years ago Microsoft sunk a stand-alone data center off Orkney, a subarctic archipelago north of Scotland, as part of a wilderness experience.
The data center measures 12 meters and is shaped like a white cylinder. It consists of 12 bays containing a total of 864 servers and an infrastructure cooling system. The datacenter was assembled and tested in France before being shipped to Scotland. A triangular base allows the datacenter to be positioned on the sea floor. Then, once at the bottom of the water, an underwater cable supplies the datacenter with power and enables it to communicate with the surrounding environment and the Internet. This initiative was expected to reduce the energy bill and other costs.
This data center has now been recovered from the ocean floor, and Microsoft researchers are evaluating its performance and what they can learn about energy efficiency. Their first conclusion is that the cylinder full of servers had a lower failure rate than a conventional data center. When the container was removed from the seabed about half a mile off the coast after being placed there in May 2018, only eight of the 855 servers on board had failed. For researchers, this provides a very good comparison with a conventional data center.
The team speculated that the greater reliability may be related to the fact that there were no humans on board and that nitrogen rather than oxygen was pumped into the capsule. In this regard, it should be noted that on land, data centers face problems such as corrosion due to oxygen and humidity and the control of temperature variations. This situation leads to increased maintenance costs.
On the other hand, in a sealed environment with strict temperature control, the problems are much less numerous. The idea is that these types of servers can be easily deployed in small and large quantities near the coasts of the areas that need them. This allows better local access to the various cloud-based resources in more places. Miniature underwater data centers have other advantages as well. Submerged data centers do not require expensive commercial real estate.
They already benefit from almost free cooling using tons of surrounding seawater. Scientists believe, however, that the logistical advantage may be more important than the immediate cooling or financial benefit. In that order, the failure rate announced by Microsoft for its experiment represents a considerable improvement. This lower failure rate is important, since it is much more difficult to repair a failed server when it is in an airtight container on the ocean floor.
According to several experts, the potential disadvantage of sealed underwater data centers is obvious: they must be extremely reliable because they cannot be maintained regularly as in the case of conventional data centers. There is of course a somewhat less intuitive counterbalancing advantage: they don't have "harmful" humans wandering around inside, which could dislodge cables, unplug things or cause chaos. The second part of the question seems not to have been studied so far by Microsoft and its researchers.