Undersea datacenter in our future?

Read about Microsoft’s Project Natick Phase 2 this past week. Microsoft submerged a steel encased tube filled with servers, storage and compute for 2 years in the UK and just took it out of the water this past July. We’ve written before about underwater and in space data centers (see our IT in space post)

Project Natick’s Phase 2 underwater data center had 12 racks with 864 servers and 27.5PB of disk storage and was connected to the nearby Orkney island’s power grid (250Kw) and networking infrastructure. The Orkney’s islands are located off the NE coast of the Scotland and its power grid is 100% renewable, using tidal, solar and wind power. During the data center test, Orkney was able was able to power the data center, the islands and still provide power back to the Scottish power grid.

More reliable underwater

According to early reports, the servers in the underwater data center had 1/8th the failures that a control data center, on land, had. Microsoft attributes the enhanced server reliability to the use of a 100% Nitrogen (at 1 atmosphere pressure) rather than normal air and the lack of any humans to jostle the equipment/disturb the environment.

It’s also likely that the temperature variability present in a normal, on the surface of the earth, data center was measurably less than for a data center on the sea floor. If this were true, that could also help explain its better reliability.

Why underwater?

It’s all about cooling modern servers (and storage). According to NREL ( USA National Renewable Energy Lab), most data centers operate at 1.8 PUE (power use efficiency) that is, using 180% of the power required for the servers, storage and networking equipment. The other 80% is used mainly for cooling electronics, but also includes lighting, HVAC, and other essential services for humans. NREL says that high efficiency data centers can achieve a PUE of 1.2.

PUE for Project Natick Phase 2 data center was reported to be 1.07. The only additional electricity needed would probably be power for cooling.

Cooling for the Project Natick Phase 2 data center used seawater pumped through the back of server racks. The data center was placed on the seafloor at 35m (117ft) deep.

It kind looked like a submarine. According to Microsoft, the data center was contracted for, built and deployed in under 90 days. The intent was to have the data center be smaller than a standard ISO shipping container. The data center was driven ontop of an 18 wheeler, from where it was built to the Orkney Island, including ferry crossings. It was placed on a triangular support, towed out to see and deposited on the seafloor.

While 864 servers and 27.5PB of storage seem like a lot to most of us, for Microsoft Azure it’s too small to be used as a regional zone. But for (large) edge deployments. something this size or (10X) smaller might be just the thing.

Microsoft notes that 1/2 the world’s population lives within 200km (120mi) of the ocean. So there’s a ready supply of people and businesses that could take advantage of any underwater data center.

And of course, such a structure when laid on the bottom of the ocean floor, could create an artificial reef (if left in place long enough). Artificial reefs have been made out of ocean oil rigs, sunken war ships and large chunks of steel/concrete. So a underwater data center could do so just as well. And maybe the heating coming from the data center cooling pumps would foster even more coral life.

Microsoft plans Project Natick Phase 3 to be a full Azure AZ that will be deployed underwater which will include about 12 Phase 2 datacenter pressurized units.

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