In 2014, Microsoft revealed Project Natick, a research project by the company to test whether keeping data centers underwater is a good idea or not. The project gained a lot of popularity in a short time which was quite expected as it solves a lot of problems that current data centers face.
Project Natick is aimed to build efficient, self-sustaining, and low maintenance data centers by deploying them underwater. Even though the overall idea is quite impressive and has a potential to actually change the way modern data centers are built and maintained but like any other major research project, it has some challenges to overcome.
One of the major challenges is powering the underwater data center. Fortunately, Microsoft already has the solution where it wants to use tidal energy to power the submerged data centers.
Another option was to use floating wind turbines to generate extra power from oceanic winds. Both of the options can be used to power these data centers on a large scale. However, the current state of tidal energy is not advanced enough to make that possible.
And hence, Microsoft has one more idea to fuel Project Natick. Before I explore that, I would like to mention that one of the biggest reasons behind building data centers underwater is cooling.
Big data companies spend millions of dollars on cooling systems. The very foundation of a data center on land is built to ensure maximum cooling.
Companies even build their data facilities in remote areas where the cost of electricity is low (to keep the cost of running cooling equipment can stay under control) and temperature curves are not too sharp. Now, placing data centers into the oceans will solve two issues.
First, as Natick’s website says, 50% of world’s population lives close to oceans, making data centers near to them. Second, oceans are significantly cooler than land and environmental activities have slower impacts on their temperature.
Now coming back to the 3rd solution of Microsoft – in case tidal energy fall short– where it’s using the heat difference between servers and ocean water as revealed by its latest patent.
The patent discloses a Hull design to facilitate extra cooling agent within the walls of a data center. The cooling agent can either be a liquid or even gas to ensure a good heat exchange between equipment and ocean water.
Here’s an image representing the same:
Where tidal and wind energy will power the data centers, the electricity generated through heat exchange can power small equipment and sensors.
Now let’s discuss another big challenge of maintenance. Microsoft plans to leave these data centers unattended for at least a year. During this time, there will be no human interference and it will be hard to find if everything will work as planned.
Huge data centers require regular human touch to work properly. It’s not common to see equipment failures every now and then in data facilities with hundreds of racks. To make sure that their submerged data center can last longer without requiring any critical maintenance, Microsoft plans to keep the size of hulls small.
The recent patent of Microsoft reveals that company intends to keep equipment with moving parts (such as pumps) in detachable separate chambers as they are more prone to failure.
The hulls of these data centers are equipped with various sensors that log external and internal pressure as well as leakage of any type of liquid.
The hulls can be brought to the surface at any time by detaching their anchors from an ocean bed. This will help in easy replacements of entire modules if something critical fails. Microsoft mentioned that these data centers can be easily mass manufactured (within 90 days) and, being modular, are easily upgradable.
Building data centers underwater is indeed an out of the box idea and will surely bring many benefits along with it. With these hulls submerged several meters (50 to 200 meters below to be precise) below an ocean surface, there will be almost no interference from humans or environmental activities. This will reduce the security stress that companies often face when working with thousands of user’s data.
What are your thoughts about these data centers? Let me know in the comments.