June 10, 2018

In order to save electricity, Microsoft loads the data center into the bottom of the ocean

Microsoft’s Project Natick is entering into its second phase of development, and actually sinking a data center 117 feet into the North Sea, a couple of miles off the coast of Scotland’s Orkney Islands.
Microsoft loads the data center into the bottom of the ocean
It certainly is a novel idea, and while it does sound like a bit of a PR gambit, there is some sound logic. Its small enough to manufacture and deploy pretty quickly, low temperatures at the seabed reduce cooling bills, around half the world’s population, live within 120 miles of the coast and when connected to renewable energy sources on the surface, it becomes notably cheaper to run.

The data center itself has been designed by Naval Group, a French business with expertise in engineering, manufacturing and maintaining military-grade ships and submarines, is contained-sized,  loaded with 12 racks containing a total of 864 servers and associated cooling system infrastructure. The systems have been designed as simply as possible to remove the need for human intervention, as when the data center has been lowered to the seafloor, it is impossible for humans to gain entry.

This is another aspect of Project Natick which is both exciting and worrying for the data center workforce; the asset is designed to be a ‘Light Out’ operation, essentially meaning automation plays a big role here, though remote control and maintenance are possible. If something breaks, it breaks, but the PoC vessel operated in the same Lights Out manner for 105 days. This is a good start, but for the idea to be commercially viable, Microsoft will have to prove the data center can remain operational for five years.

“The most joyful moment of the day was when the data center finally slipped beneath the surface on it's slow, carefully scripted journey,” said Project Leader Ben Cutler.

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The idea is a good one, but now the team has to prove the theory is one which will be economical, environmentally and operationally sound. First and foremost is the sturdiness of the data center. The test site, the European Marine Energy Centre, is one of the rougher locations in the North Sea, with tidal currents traveling up to nine miles per hour at peak intensity and the sea surface regularly roils with 10-foot waves that whip up to more than 60 feet in stormy conditions.

“We know if we can put something in here and it survives, we are good for just about any place we want to go,” said Cutler.

Another test will be making sure the theory of energy self-sufficient data centers is a sound one. Colocation with marine renewable energy is an important step here and could allow Microsoft to bring services to regions of the world with unreliable electricity, and eliminate the need for costly backup generators in case of power grid failures. In this test, a cable from the Orkney Island grid sends electricity to the data center, which requires just under a quarter of a megawatt of power when operating at full capacity. The Orkney Islands are actually 100% powered by renewable energy, a mix of solar, wind and marine.

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The cooling system is another way in which Microsoft can potentially make the data center more sustainable and efficient to run, as the water surrounding the submerged asset will be pumped through the system to cool the servers. Add in the consistently low temperature of the water at the seabed and the cooling problem of data centers becomes a lot more feasible.

Aside from proving it can be powered and operated, the team also have to demonstrate the logistical side. Building the data center in the shape of a container means there are a variety of sizes available and it can be easily transported from the factory. This is a positive, as is the successful deployment, using 10 winches, a crane, and a gantry barge, as well as a remotely operated vehicle that accompanied the data center on its journey, but at the end of the experiment, the team needs to get the asset back out. Recycling the asset is key for the business model here, and despite it being powered by renewable energy, we suspect Microsoft would have few green fans if it just left it at the bottom of the ocean.

The promise of the project is very attractive. With the rapid growth of internet usage and the increasing data-intensity of applications, infrastructure needs to scale quickly. The idea offers speedy and flexible deployment, low latency, environmentally friendly and cost-effective, but there are still a lot of unknowns. Whether Microsoft can operate a data center with zero human intervention for five years, in a harsh environment, remains to be seen, but it could be onto a winner.

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