Microsoft has deployed an underwater data centre off the coast of the Northern Isles of Scotland.
The data centre is part of an experiment by Microsoft to research more energy efficient data centres. The world’s oceans at depth are consistently cold, offering ready and free access to cooling, which is one of the biggest costs for land-based data centres.
Demand for data centre resources across the computing industry is growing exponentially as corporations increasingly shift their networks and computing needs to the cloud.
“When you are in this kind of exponential growth curve, it tells you that most of the data centres that we’ll ever build we haven’t built yet,” said Ben Cutler, a project manager in the special projects group within Microsoft’s research organisation who leads the Project Natick team.
The data centre, a large white cylinder containing 12 server racks and 864 servers, could sit on the sea floor for up to five years. An undersea cable powers the data centre power while taking its data to the shore.
This is the second phase of an experiment dubbed Project Natick. The first underwater data centre was sunk for five months in 2015, off the coast of California. Phase one of Project Natick was to prove that an underwater data centre concept is feasible; Phase two is focused on researching whether the concept is logistically, environmentally and economically practical, Microsoft said.
Microsoft will be monitoring the data centre for the next year to see how it survives under water. If the test proves successful, Microsoft hopes to eventually deploy similar portable data centres off the coasts of major cities.
More than half of the world’s population lives within about 120 miles of the coast. By putting data centres in bodies of water near coastal cities, data would have a short distance to travel to reach coastal communities. Underwater data centres could also serve as anchor tenants for marine renewable energy such as offshore wind farms or banks of tidal turbines, allowing the two industries to evolve in lockstep. In fact, the area around Northern Isles was chosen because it is a major centre for renewable energy research.
Additionally, deploying such a data centre offshore takes about 90 days, whereas it could take years on land.
On the flip side, it will not be possible to repair the servers if they fail, but Microsoft hopes the failure rate will be less than on land.
There are also environmental concerns. The compute-intensive computers used in data centres produce a lot of heat; high water temperatures around power plants that occur when warmer water re-enters the ecosystem, for example, have been shown to result in algae blooms and dead fish zones.