Servers Work More Reliably Under the Sea.

Two years ago, Microsoft immersed a data center in the Scottish Sea. 864 servers with 27.6 petabytes of memory, housed in a watertight steel cylinder, were submerged some 30 meters below the surface of the water to do their job. The energy for the system's operation was exclusively provided by solar cells and wind turbines; cooling water was not required. The experiment was a success and will certainly have an impact on the worldwide availability and sustainability of data centers as well as the Azure Cloud.

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Foto Andreas Reisinger
Andreas Reisinger
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More than half of the world's population lives somewhere by the sea - or at least no further than 200 kilometers from the coast. Submerging data centers near coastal cities in the sea therefore makes a lot of sense. This would shorten data connections between data centers and users, accelerating data transport. The cool water below sea level allows for very energy-efficient data center designs that do not require a cooling water supply. Microsoft's Natick project puts these benefits into practice. It is testing the feasibility of underwater data centers that can be operated with renewable offshore energy. Such facilities could be deployed to provide better local access to cloud-based resources - which in turn will support the Microsoft Azure business.


People and corrosion are harmful for IT equipment

In fact, there are problems with the operation of conventional data centers on land that do not arise underwater. Corrosion by oxygen and moisture occurs far less in a water- and gas-tight environment with strict temperature control. The consequence: The Natick underwater data center has only one-eighth the failure rate of a land-based facility, which is significantly better. And the high reliability of the servers means that the few that fail prematurely can simply be shut down.

Now, after the cylinder with the 864 servers has been raised to the surface again, air samples were  collected for analysis at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington. The cylinder had been filled with dry nitrogen for operation. Now it will be investigated how gases released from cables and other devices have changed the operating environment of the computers. The research team believes that the nitrogen atmosphere, which is less corrosive than oxygen, but also the lack of people who handle the components carelessly, are the main reasons why the servers on the ocean floor run more reliably.


Powered by wind and solar energy

Electricity on the Orkney Islands is produced one hundred percent from wind and solar power (and other, experimental energy technologies). This power supply, which is considered unreliable by most land-based data centers, has proven its worth, the Microsoft researchers say. It enables scenarios such as combining an underwater data center with an offshore wind farm. Even in light winds, there would in all probability be enough power available for a data center. If not, a power line could be bundled with the fiber optic cabling. Another advantage of such underwater data centers is the fact that the system could theoretically be moved to another location during periods of high demand.


A data center without the need for cooling water

Project Natick proves that data centers can be operated and kept cool without consuming valuable drinking water resources. Natick 2 does not consume any water. By comparison, a conventional land-based data center consumes 4.8 liters of water per kilowatt hour, according to Microsoft. This corresponds to a long-term demand of millions of hectoliters of cooling water. (Calculations of the current energy requirements of all data centers worldwide estimate at least 200 billion kilowatt hours.[1]) Conventional data centers are delivering more and more services, consuming more and more power - and therefore more water. In many regions of the world, even near the coast, the water requirements for next-generation data centers cannot be met. That's why the fact that Microsoft's underwater data center does not need water is extremely important.


Twelve cylinders for an Azure mini region

Microsoft is already planning to expand the existing project to facilitate the operation of the entire range of Azure cloud services. This would require the assembly of about twelve cylinders, each with almost 900 servers. These would be mounted on a grid construction[2]. The whole system would then be about 100 meters long. Twelve such cylinders have a capacity of about five megawatts. According to Microsoft, this is sufficient to serve a mini Azure region. As generic cloud computing is being replaced by cloud and edge computing, there will be a growing need to have smaller data centers close to customers rather than huge data centers in the middle of nowhere, Microsoft argues.

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