Where tech companies like Facebook and Google prefer to move their data centres to colder countries to reduce their air conditioning bill, Microsoft has come up with an even better home for data centres while cutting high energy costs for cooling them: Under the Sea.

“50% of us live near the coast. Why doesn’t our data?”

Building massive data centres underwater might sound crazy, but it is exactly something Microsoft is testing with its first submarine data centre.

The testing is part of Microsoft’s plan dubbed Project Natick — an ongoing research project to build and run a data centre that is submerged in the ocean, which the company believes, could make data centres faster, cost-effective, environmentally friendly and easier to set up.

Leona Philpot (named after the Halo character from Microsoft’s Xbox) was tested last August, when engineers placed an enormous steel capsule a kilometre off the California coast, 30 feet underwater in the Pacific Ocean.

A single datacentre computing rack was placed in an eight-foot-wide steel capsule, which was covered in around 100 sensors to monitor every aspect of the underwater conditions: pressure, humidity, and, most importantly, motion.

The test ran from August to November last year (exactly 105 days) and the engineers said it was more successful than expected.

[divider]Microsoft’s reasoning[/divider]

According to Microsoft, these are the main reasons for experimenting with underwater data centres:

  1. Air conditioning cost is one of the biggest pain in running data centres. Traditional data centres are believed to consume up to 3 percent of the world’s electricity.

So, placing the data centres in the ocean eliminated the need for cooling and will highly cut energy costs required to cool the heat generated by the racks upon racks of servers that process and store the world’s digital lives.

  1. Half of the world’s population is located within 200 kilometers of the coast, so placing data centres in the sea would reduce latency – the time data takes to travel from its source to customers, which simply means faster delivery of data.
  2. Reduce the time to build a data centre from 2 Years to 90 Days. Microsoft believes that if it can mass produce the steel capsules, the company could build data centres in just 90 days.

This would make its operations cheaper and much quicker than the time needed to set a data centre up on land.

Moreover, the capsules designed by the company would also adopt new, innovative rack designs that do not even need to consider human interaction.

  1. Use of Renewable Energy. The project’s engineers even believe that in future, underwater data centres might be able to power themselves by renewable energy, as in this case, perhaps underwater turbines or tidal power to generate electricity.
  2. Environment-Friendly. Microsoft will also be tackling environmental concerns related to underwater data centres. The company says its current underwater data centre prototype emits an “extremely” small amount of heat energy into the surrounding waters.
[divider]Limitations[/divider]

Data centres on land are open for IT engineers to fix issues and replace servers whenever required, but the company wants its undersea data centres to go without maintenance for years at a time.

Since Microsoft doesn’t have a team of Scuba engineers, each Natick data centre unit would operate for over 5 years without maintenance and then it would be dragged up to the surface to have its internal parts replaced.

Other obvious risks for submarine data centres could be saltwater that is corrosive and weather that can also be a problem, to name just two potential hurdles.

[divider]Future Of The Data Centre[/divider]

The company started working on this idea in 2013, but the development of a physical prototype began in 2014 and August last year with its first ever submarine data server, Leona Philpot.

Since Microsoft’s Project Natick has been in its “early days,” it is hard to say when underwater data centres can actually adopted. However, Microsoft has plans to design a new version of underwater data centres that’s three times larger than Leona Philpot.

It is not just Microsoft; many tech companies are considering new ways of housing data. In 2013,Facebook located one of its latest state-of-the-art data centres in Luleå, the far north of Sweden, to make use of cheap, renewable energy generated by hydroelectric schemes and outside air for cooling.

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