Sea Change: Microsoft Plans to Submerge Data Centers

Microsoft engineer Sean James – who honed his skills working on-board a U.S. Navy submarine before joining the tech giant – came up with a “watershed idea” several years ago: He said that submerging the company’s data centers could solve several problems by introducing a new power source, greatly reducing cooling costs, and closing the distance to connected populations.

Indeed, the Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft employee circulated a memo suggesting that the electricity that powers data centers could be generated from wave or tidal power. While it was greeted with some consternation overall by his colleagues, the staff of Microsoft Research NExT, a futuristic research group, was intrigued.

In 2015, the company installed a 38,000-pound, 10-foot x 7-foot container on the ocean floor for three months to test James’ notion – and there’s no stopping them now.

Ben Cutler, the project manager who led the team behind this experiment, dubbed Project Natick, is part of a group within Microsoft Research that focuses on special projects. In an article on Microsoft’s blog, Cutler commented, “We take a big whack at big problems, on a short-term basis. We take a look at something from a new angle, a different perspective, with a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. “

In an article published in next month’s  edition of IEEE Spectrum (Dunking the Data Center”), four Microsoft employees who anchored Project Natick –Ben Cutler, Spencer Fowers, Jeffrey Kramer, and Eric Peterson, wrote that they had “no shortage of hurdles to overcome.”

The first challenge, of course, was keeping the inside of its big steel container dry. Another was figuring out the best way to use the surrounding seawater to cool the servers inside. Also, there was the matter of how to deal with the barnacles and other crustaceans that inevitably would cover a submerged container and interfere with the transfer of heat from the servers to the surrounding water.

And finally, the Microsoft team would have to work remotely in a low-to-no light environment, “with no one to fix things or change out parts for the operational life of the pod.”

Would be worth it? For Microsoft it was a no-brainer. “For one,” the authors said, “it would offer a company like ours the ability to quickly target capacity where and when it is needed. Corporate planners would be freed from the burden of having to build these facilities long before they are actually required in anticipation of later demand. For an industry that spends billions of dollars a year constructing ever-increasing numbers of data centers, quick response time could provide enormous cost savings.”

Why would it be easier to build datacenters undersea? “The equipment might be the same, but building codes, taxes, climate, workforce, electricity supply, and network connectivity are different everywhere. And those variables affect how long construction takes.”

The pods could be constructed in a factory, provisioned with servers, and made ready to ship anywhere in the world. The authors said, “Our goal for Natick is to be able to get data centers up and running, at coastal sites anywhere in the world, within 90 days from the decision to deploy.”

“If that isn’t reason enough, consider the savings in cooling costs,” the authors said, explaining, “Historically, such facilities have used mechanical cooling—think home air-conditioning on steroids….What’s more, these facilities can consume a lot of water. That’s because they often use evaporation to cool the air somewhat before blowing it over the servers….

“Our Natick architecture sidesteps all these problems,” they stated. “The interior of the data-center pod consists of standard computer racks with attached heat exchangers, which transfer the heat from the air to some liquid, likely ordinary water. That liquid is then pumped to heat exchangers on the outside of the pod, which in turn transfer the heat to the surrounding ocean. The cooled transfer liquid then returns to the internal heat exchangers to repeat the cycle.”

Finally, they said, the heat from a submerged data center would not be harmful to the local marine environment. Any heat generated by a Natick pod would rapidly be mixed with cool water and carried away by the currents. The water just meters downstream of a Natick vessel would get a few thousandths of a degree warmer at most.

So, it may be anchors away for Microsoft data centers in the near future.

The team concludes, “The environmental impact would be very modest. That’s important, because the future is bound to see a lot more data centers get built. If we have our way, though, people won’t actually see many of them, because they’ll be doing their jobs deep underwater.”

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