Microsoft’s underwater datacenter passes all tests

For some years now, the fish fauna of the Scottish Orkney Islands has had a new tenant of 17 tons. It is not a cetacean but an underwater datacenter called Nothern Isles with the Microsoft logo on it. The mammoth steel tube was positioned 35 meters below the sea for the Natick project. The solution identified as astute as it is innovative has the objective of solving the onerous problem of the space in which to place a datacenter as well as all the problems relating to its cooling.

In 2018, the underwater datacenter was sunk on the seabed of the Orkney Islands.
Credit: In 2018 Nothern Isles was placed on the seabed of the Scottish Orkney Islands.

A project born in 2014

The Natick is a project that saw the light five years ago. At the time it was certainly an ambitious project considering the difficulties that would be encountered on the way. The set goal is to improve the life of datacenters that are subjected to numerous bad weather on land. Corrosion from oxygen and moisture, temperature changes and user-induced shocks are just some of the variables that can contribute to equipment failure. Furthermore, this solution would guarantee a higher connection speed for all coastal populations that could sometimes suffer from the distance from large traditional server farms.

The two phases of the experimentation

In the first phase, the objective was to verify the feasibility of managing an entire underwater datacenter. Operating remotely for long periods of time, with a high level of energy efficiency and safeguarding the surrounding environment were the main objectives of the preliminary phase.

With phase number two , instead, we want to develop a prototype that can be replicated on a large scale. A model that can be used as a modular element to aggregate submarine datacenters of arbitrary size together.

Achieved results

The datacenter was sunk in 2018 and for two years it was monitored by experts to verify its reliability. On 9 July 2020, the Natick concluded its first submarine “mission”. Once brought back to the surface, the datacenter was cleaned, taken to the laboratory and dismembered of its components for further analysis.

Credits: In July, the datacenter was re-emerged in order to be analyzed in greater detail.

Among the components found, some had faults with the server and related cables. The team of researchers think that checking for malfunctioning hardware will help them understand why the servers in the underwater datacenter are eight times more reliable than those located on land. Among the most popular hypotheses is the nitrogen-laden atmosphere, which is less corrosive than oxygen, and the absence of people bumping and pushing the components. If these claims were found to be effective, the results obtained could be translated to improve terrestrial datacenters.

Datacenter with a "curious" location

However, the Natick project is not the only one to have proposed such an original solution.

  • The Pionen White Mountains , the Swedish data center located about 30 meters underground and a few kilometers from Stockholm. A converted former atomic bunker that had also attracted the attention of Wikileaks, who had made it its operations center.
  • In the Nevada desert resides SuperNap , the most powerful and strategic datacenter in the USA. Among the reasons for the location is the presence of thousands of US Telco interconnection cables. The area is thus one of the most interconnected in the nation and perhaps in the world. Furthermore, the Las Vegas area, which is not very prone to particular natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and typhoons, appears to be particularly suitable for hosting structures of this kind.
  • Kolos is the datacenter of the Arctic Circle. The choice of this location is certainly linked to the possibility of naturally cooling the servers without any intervention, but also the possibility of easily using hydroelectric energy.

The article Microsoft's Underwater Datacenter Passes All Tests comes from TechCuE .