Rethinking Data Centers from the Ocean Floor Up

Walter Schaefer, ERS, for Zondits

Data centers are great. The servers they contain do much of the computational heavy lifting that makes our smartphones so powerful, allows us to stay connected to email and social media from seemingly anywhere, and facilitates endless Netflix binge-watching. Yet despite all of the wonderful things data centers do for us, they aren’t perfect. They require massive amounts of cooling to keep their server racks running smoothly, and they are often located far from population centers, which leads to increased delay, or latency, in users’ web-surfing experience. Researchers at Microsoft, however, think that they can address these issues with a revolutionary idea.

Enter Project Natick, Microsoft’s ongoing effort to develop the data center of the future. Their plan? To move the whole thing underwater.

The idea came from a team of data center employees, including one with experience on Navy submarines, and challenges many of the industry’s traditionally accepted practices (namely that advanced electronics and corrosive salt water should be kept far apart). While placing a data center on the ocean floor presents a number of exciting opportunities, it also introduces several tough engineering challenges.

The primary benefit of moving a data center underwater is the ability to take advantage of 24/7 free cooling from the cold ocean water surrounding it, eliminating the need for costly and energy-intensive mechanical cooling. Given that in the US alone data centers annually consume the equivalent of the output of 34 coal-fired power plants, a significant portion of which goes toward cooling, this innovation represents a big step toward reducing the environmental impact of data center operations. Additionally, submarine data centers could be placed closer to the large population centers that use the most data, most of which are located near large bodies of water.

Microsoft hopes to mass produce underwater data center units for modular deployment, reducing development time from around  2 years for a land-based data center to 3 months, and substantially reducing the cost of development. The company also expects to be able, in the future, to take advantage of renewable energy captured from waves or tides to meet the data center’s energy needs, further reducing the industry’s environmental footprint. The success of the concept, of course, hinges in part on the development of more resilient computing equipment that can run without service for years at a time, as it’s not so easy to send a technician down to the ocean floor when something goes wrong.

Microsoft deployed its first submarine unit – an 8’-diameter steel capsule – off the coast of Washington state in August 2015, where it was tested and monitored for 105 days with minimal observed environmental impact. Read more about the project and keep up with its progress here.