Microsoft tests underwater data center paving the way for a new era in sustainable data

Around the globe, data centers consume massive amounts of energy and water during operations. Underwater centers could enable more sustainable deployments in the years ahead.


Image: Microsft

In recent years, Microsoft has mode long-term commitments to various green energy initiatives. Earlier this year, the company announced that it had successfully powered data center servers using hydrogen fuel cells. Now, the company is taking another step toward creating sustainable data centers. On Monday, Microsoft announced that an underwater data center deployed in the Northern Isles could serve as a practical and sustainable option in the years ahead.

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For the past two years, a Microsoft data center had been submerged in the water near the coast of the Orkney Islands. During that time, the company’s Project Natick team would test and analyze the servers’ dependability and performance. In recent weeks, a team retrieved the data center from a depth of 117 feet.

“We were pretty impressed with how clean it was, actually,” said Spencer Fowers, a principal member of the technical staff for Microsoft’s Special Projects research group, in a press release. “It did not have a lot of hardened marine growth on it; it was mostly sea scum.”


Image: Microsoft

First, it’s important to understand why Microsoft would want to test the practicality of underwater data centers. On terra firma, standard operating conditions introduce a host of challenges for onboard hardware. As Microsoft points out, oxygen and humidity can lead to corrosion, fluctuations in temperature, as well as inadvertent “bumps” from people during maintenance, can also play a role in equipment failure.

Based on these standard drawbacks, the Project Natick team theorized that using a sealed vessel positioned on the seafloor could potentially enhance data center reliability. Overall, the initial test just off of the Orkney Islands confirmed this original postulation potentially paving the way for a new approach to data center deployments.

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After power-washing the sealed data center, members of the team collected a series of air samples via a valve and then unbolted the container to remove the internal server racks. The team then conducted health checks on the equipment and sent some components to Microsoft’s headquarters for further analysis.

The researchers believe the results of this analysis will help the team “understand why the servers in the underwater datacenter are eight times more reliable than those on land.” Currently, the team believes that the main reasons for the increased reliability is due to the absence of human-related component jostling and the less corrosive nitrogen atmosphere onboard, per Microsoft.


Image: Microsoft

Aside from human jostling and corrosion due to oxygen, there are other potential advantages to placing data centers underwater. For example, traditional data centers use massive amounts of water to stay cool during use. The consistent lower temperature of subsurface seawaters offers potential sustainable cooling options and future designs could “leverage heat-exchange plumbing such as that found on submarines,” per Microsoft.

There are also proximal advantages associated with having data centers located in certain coastal waters. For example, approximately 40% of the Earth’s population lives within 60 miles of the ocean, according to UN data. As Microsoft points out, positioning underwater data centers close to coastal cities would decrease the distance data needs to travel “leading to fast and smooth web surfing, video streaming and game playing.”

“As we are moving from generic cloud computing to cloud and edge computing, we are seeing more and more need to have smaller data centers located closer to customers instead of these large warehouse data centers out in the middle of nowhere,” Fowers said.