Usually, when one thinks of data centers, it conjures up images of huge and faceless warehouses that have stacks upon stacks of servers that are kept cool by massive air conditioning units. If that was not already awesome, Microsoft decided to level up by sending 12 racks of their servers underwater. You heard it correct, Project Natick, the newest data center operation of Microsoft lies not in a fancy warehouse but rather in a bus-sized cylinder underneath the coast of northern Scotland.
The data center is a white colored cylinder that contains computers and for which, Microsoft estimates that it could sit on the sea floor for five years. The data center is powered by an undersea cable which also doubles as a line for data transfer. However, if the computers inside the cylinder break, they cannot be repaired.
Project Natick is comparatively small if compared with the mammoth-sized onshore warehouses that host most of the world’s data. However, the 12 racks of computers that are present within the cylinder do not fall short, packing enough room to host five million movies.
The cylinder lies on the sea floor just off the coast of Orkney, an archipelago located in the northern island of Scotland. Orkney was selected because it is the primary center on renewable energy research in the world.
The shipbuilding company that built the cylinder, Naval, was responsible for transporting the structure filled with servers from Brittany to the town of Stromness in Orkney. The European Marine Energy Center (EMEC) was another partner in this operation who provided help in laying the undersea cables that linked Project Natick to the shore.
The reason why Microsoft has sunk the data center in the sea is to explore energy efficiency factors and whether this experiment will prove sustainable or not. Microsoft aims to investigate the reduction in cooling costs for data centers if they are placed underwater.
Microsoft has big plans if Project Natick becomes successful. They plan to sink five similar cylinders underwater and create an offshore data center within the next 90 days of the present experiment. Their analysts estimate that building such a data center could take years to accomplish on land. Backing the project is a large sum of investment, which leaves no doubt that Project Natick was not just an experiment, it was an expensive international affair.
The idea of underwater data centers might seem farfetched at first but it makes sense when you take into consideration the fact that nearly 50 percent of the population of the world live near the coastal areas. Microsoft must have also considered the question: If there is so much population near the coast, then why there aren’t more data centers near the oceans? Project Natick came about as a result of that curiosity.
In the time since the conception of the Project Natick research team, Microsoft has managed to gain useful information regarding underwater data centers, which makes the whole project worthwhile. The project, if successful, will result in a huge boost for Microsoft’s corporate social responsibility by providing a formidable alternative to power-hungry air conditioning systems. The underwater data centers will employ the surrounding water as a cooling mechanism to control the data units’ temperature.
Another benefit of using such cooling units is the reduced costs of brick or mortar data center construction which usually takes years in their construction. On the other hand, the underwater datacenters relatively cost-effective, so much so, in fact, that Microsoft says that it can produce another version of Project Natick in just 3 months.
Microsoft has gone to great lengths in their pursuit of renewable resources. They believe if Project Natick, which is powered by wind and tied powered turbines, is successful then the models developed for the future will have the ability to generate their own electricity using generators outside the submerged data center. The only resource currently missing is an underwater cable that connects the unit to the internet. But with the speed of innovation in which Microsoft is progressing, the internet cables do not seem too distant of a dream.
The only problem with the submerged systems is this that if the technology present within the unit goes haywire, nobody would be there to troubleshoot or repair. Microsoft has made all the necessary adjustments for designing a human-independent data unit and hopes that the number of units is pushed close to 20 in the not so distant future. Microsoft also addressed the question of unit recycling by saying that once the data center has run its useful life, it would be retrieved and recycled, which shows another positive step forward towards sustainability.
Microsoft has shown considerable foresight when conducting this experiment. A human independent, water cooled system will mean more stability towards server requests, which can eventually prompt more company owners and executives to shift their corporate servers or even their small-scale dot net development company servers underwater. The project is an innovative step not only towards sustainability but also towards a more technologically savvy future.
About The Author
Qurat-ul-Ain Ghazali is an information system engineer and a certified digital marketing trainer. She has a passion for writing, designing and anything tech related. You can follow her on LinkedIn.