Back in 2018, Microsoft began Project Natick, deploying a custom-designed data center to the sea floor off the coast of Scotland. Aiming to determine whether the underwater environment would bring benefits to energy efficiency, reliability, and performance, the project was spawned during ThinkWeek in 2014, an event designed to share and explore unconventional ideas.
This week, Microsoft reported that the project had been a success. The Northern Isles data center was recently lifted from the ocean floor in a day-long operation, and teams swooped in to analyse the hardware, and the results coming out of the project are surprisingly impressive.
Perhaps the most interesting statistic to come out of the project is the sheer reliability of the hardware. The underwater servers were eight times more reliable than a replica data center built on land. The leading hypothesis behind this astonishing number is the benefits of the dry nitrogen atmosphere within the underwater pod, reducing corrosion, as well as the absence of meddling humans who may accidentally bump or damage hardware in regular land-based operations.
The team also collected samples of the atmosphere within the tube, aiming to determine the effect of outgassing from cables and other equipment inside. With a better understanding of the factors that led to such a large improvement in reliability, the Project Natick team hopes to improve reliability in traditional data centers, too.
But you can seal racks of servers in nitrogen anywhere, why sink them to the bottom of the ocean? Cooling costs can be much reduced, as the low temperatures of the sub-surface seawater provide ample cooling capacity, something simply not available on land.
Terrestrial data centers use large amounts of water, both indirectly due to electricity generation and directly in cooling applications. The underwater concept promises to reduce this immensely, with less energy required to keep the servers cool. The concept also allows for servers to be located close to coastal cities for low-latency and high performance, without requiring expensive inner-city real estate, a trend we’ve seen in other utilities like the floating power generation under way in Brooklyn.
The underwater concept does have drawbacks, too. Hands-on maintenance is simply not possible, meaning any failed servers must simply be left offline. Additionally, deploying an underwater data center can be more difficult than building out facility on land. Engineers also have to consider sea currents and potential damage from marine life or shipping, problems that simply don’t exist on land. It’s also possible that the build-up of barnacles or other marine detritus on an underwater pod could reduce cooling efficiency over time. While Microsoft’s 2-year experiment only had a thin layer of algae and barnacles, this will differ widely with deployment location and time.
Fundamentally, the huge improvement in reliability and reduced energy costs go a long way to justifying the underwater data center concept. Lessons learned will benefit data centers on land, too. Ultimately, whether we see more servers deployed below the waves is yet to be decided. Availability of land versus the availability of underwater locations and whether or not the reliability benefits can be applied to conventional data centers will be the deciding factors as to how this technology develops further.