Global technology giant, Microsoft, 2 years ago, announced that they had submerged a shipping container sized data center in the waters of the Island of Orkney – just off Scotland. The purpose of the undertaking was to assess whether portable data centers could be assembled and deployed, using existing supply chains, or not. The experiment yielded better results than expected, it appears.
The Data Center, a cylindrical container (40 feet in length) fitted with 864 servers – as part of Microsoft’s Natick research project – has, for the past two years, sat on the rocky seafloor off the coast of Scotland’s Northern Isles with only a cable connecting it to humanity. The team found that, of the 800+ servers left running in the contraption, only 8 had gone down. Only 8 server failures, in two years. The team attributed this better-than-expected result to the lack of human contact with the equipment in the data center.
Assembled in France, and equipped with submarine technology, the team behind the project chose Orkney for it’s 100% clean energy grid – thanks to The European Marine Energy Centre running a testing site on the island, employing wind, water, and solar energy to power life on the island. Project Natick’s main objective is to test the viability of the concept of affordably assembling and deploying portable, and energy efficient data centers to coastal areas.
The idea behind underwater data centers, first proposed in 2014 during the company’s ThinkWeek event, is that a company can reduce corrosion, and other damage, caused by oxygen, humidity, and human activity within the data center, by submerging the servers in a sealed containment unit. Through the experiment, Microsoft has uncovered the commercial potential of the idea – seeing as more than half of the world’s urban areas are situated within 120 miles of coastline – as well as ways to keep current data centers ticking longer, with minimal human interference.
“We are populating the globe with edge devices, large and small,” commented vice president of mission systems at Microsoft’s Asure William Chappell, “To learn how to make datacenters reliable enough not to need human touch is a dream of ours.”
Once the cylindrical data center was hauled up from its 117 foot resting place on the seafloor – covered in algae, barnacles and an assortment of small aquatic life – it was found to be in perfectly good condition, interiorly speaking. Minimal (virtually none) ware on the equipment was also noted by researchers – as they had consistently pumped nitrogen into the tank, instead of allowing it to be filled with oxygen.
Energy efficiency is another area that raised the team’s confidence in the viability of the concept. The Natick team are now looking into locating any data center units they deploy in future, near wind turbines. “We have been able to run really well on what most land-based data centres consider an unreliable grid,” says Spencer Fowers, a member of 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.”
Looking into the future, the team claims that they will not be trying to prove the concept any further, as the first underwater data centre being operational is proof enough. What Microsoft’s team is focusing on now is deploying aquatic data centers, to any scale needed (without the additional cost of putting up a building to house the data center.) The team is also currently working on the possiblity of securing the information stored – and processed – in these centers with quantum encryption technology.