The datacenter was retrieved from the seafloor off Scotland's Orkney Islands. Algae, barnacles and sea anemones grew on the datacenter. (Image Credit: Jonathan Banks)


Microsoft completed its years-long experiment involving a 40-foot long, 12-rack, self-contained underwater data center, set on the seafloor offshore from the Orkney Islands. Earlier this summer, the company retrieved its "Project Natick" underwater datacenter from the water. For the past few months, Microsoft has studied the data center to determine if it's feasible, environmentally, economically, and logistically practical. In the future, these could potentially replace on-land datacenters.


In spring 2018, the team behind Project Natick deployed the datacenter 117 feet deep to the seafloor. Over the next two years, the team tested and monitored the performance and reliability of the datacenter's servers. They theorized that a sealed container on the seafloor could make a datacentre more reliable. Corrosion from oxygen and humidity, temperature fluctuations, and bumps from people replacing components are all common causes of equipment failure.

The results revealed that the performance of the underwater datacenter is up to eight times more reliable than the on-land counterparts. Researchers plan on looking into the cause of the increased reliability. From there, they hope to translate these advantages to land datacenters, increasing performance and efficiency.


A disadvantage of an underwater data center is that they need to be highly reliable since they can't be regularly serviced. With that in mind, there is also a counterbalancing advantage to this. Humans won't need to walk around inside them, potentially loosening cables and unplugging components. Seafloor-based pods won't need expensive commercial real estate, and the seawater can provide free cooling. It's also simpler and faster to build a sealed pod and deploy it on the seafloor than to develop commercial real estate for a datacenter.


The team collected air samples from the underwater datacenter. It was filled with dry nitrogen before being sealed up for deployment. (Image Credit: Jonathan Banks)


Before removing the datacenter unit from the pod's hull, the researchers inserted test tubes through a valve on top of the vessel to gather air samples for analysis in Redmond. "We left it filled with dry nitrogen, so the environment is pretty benign in there," Microsoft Special Projects researcher Spencer Fowers said. He also says that there are still questions about how cable and equipment outgassing may have changed the operating environment for the computers.


The servers failed at a rate of one-eighth compared to what experts expect from the same servers in a human-service datacenter over the same time. The researchers believe this is because of the inert nitrogen atmosphere the pod was pressurized with before being deployed.


The team behind Project Natick chose the Orkney Islands for the deployment because the grid is supplied 100% by wind, solar and experimental green technologies under development at the European Marine Energy Centre. "We have been able to run really well on what most land-based data centers consider an unreliable grid," Fowers said.


Ben Cutler, a project manager for Project Natick, believes that co-locating offshore wind farms could power production deployments. Light winds would be enough to power a data center. As a last resort, a powerline from the shore could be packaged with the fiber optic cabling needed to transmit data.



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