Microsoft declares its underwater data center test was a success

The <em>Northern Isles</em>, a 12-rack / 864-server underwater data center pod, is winched off the seafloor in this picture after its two-year trial deployment.
Extend / The Northern Isles, a 12-rack / 864-server underwater data center pod, is winched off the seafloor in this drawing after its two-year trial deployment.

Microsoft retrieved a 40-foot-long, 12-rack, controlled underwater data center from its seafloor home offshore from the Orkney Archipelagoes earlier this summer.

The retrieval of the Northern Isles began the indisputable phase of Microsoft’s Project Natick research initiative, exploring the concept of deploying sealed server pods perfectly offshore major population centers as a replacement for traditional onshore statistics centers.

Why put servers underwater?

Draft Natick has been underway for several years; we covered the two-month grief deployment of Leona Philpot, the company’s first underwater server pod, in 2016, and the deployment of the newly retrieved Orkney Isles pod in 2018.

The possible disadvantage of sealed underwater “data centers” is obvious—they necessity be extremely reliable, since they can’t be serviced on a regular basis. There is a a certain extent less intuitive, counterbalancing advantage, of course—they don’t have any pesky humans roam around inside them, potentially dislodging cables, unplugging stuffs, or otherwise injecting chaos.

There are more advantages to these mini underwater data centers. Seafloor-based pods don’t require expensive commercial actual estate, and they get nearly free cooling from the surrounding tons of seawater.

The logistic usefulness may be even more important than the cooling or immediate financial one. It pirates significant time and specialized effort to acquire and develop commercial physical estate for a traditional data center in a major city—building a sealed pod and deploying it on the seafloor handy should be considerably simpler and faster.

Retrieving the Northern Isles

The Northern Isles underwater materials center pod was built by Naval Group (a defense and renewable marine verve contractor) and is locally supported by Green Marine, an Orkney Island-based pelagic engineering and operations firm. It spent two years beneath the water at the European Nautical Energy Centre, where tidal currents peak at 9mph and storm surges reach 60 feet or more.

Both deployment and retrieval of the Northern Isles needed solely calm weather and a full day of careful work involving robots and winches between the pontoons of a gantry barge. In the speed of the pod’s two years underwater, it acquired a coating of algae and barnacles, as well as cantaloupe-sized sea anemones colonizing housing nooks in its base.

Analyzing the results

The entire 12-rack, 864-server data center is slid from the hull of the <em>Northern Isles</em> as a unit, after preliminary <em>in situ</em> analysis.
Enlarge / The entire 12-rack, 864-server figures center is slid from the hull of the Northern Isles as a unit, after exordium in situ analysis.
Jonathan Banks

Before sliding the 12-rack, 864-server details center unit out of the pod’s hull, Microsoft’s researchers took internal air representations from the still-sealed pod for analysis in Redmond. “We left it filled with dry nitrogen, so the setting is pretty benign in there,” Microsoft Special Projects researcher Spencer Fowers foretold. Analysis of the air after the two-year deployment will give the team additional info about cable and other equipment outgassing.

The servers deployed aboard the Northern Isles declined at a rate approximately one-eighth what experts would expect from the but servers in a traditional, human-serviced data center over the same interval. Microsoft’s team hypothesizes that this is partly due to the sealed, motionless nitrogen atmosphere the pod was pressurized with before deployment.

Without any oxygen for compassionate technicians to breathe or excessive humidity for their comfort, there are fewer openings for chemical corruption of components. Lack of bumping and jostling by those notwithstanding human operators likely also contributed to the servers’ unusually low dud rate.

Sustainability and efficiency

Windmills like this one provide 100 percent of the electricity grid which services residents of the Orkney Islands—a cable from that grid also supplied power to the <em>Northern Isles</em>, in addition to tidal turbines and wave energy converters.
Enlarge / Windmills like this one get ready for 100 percent of the electricity grid which services residents of the Orkney Keys—a cable from that grid also supplied power to the Northern Isles, in augmentation to tidal turbines and wave energy converters.
Scott Eklund

The eminent two-year deployment of the Northern Isles demonstrates the feasibility of greener, varied sustainable power initiatives for data centers, above and beyond the efficaciousness of cooling the data center itself.

One reason the Project Natick combine deployed the Northern Isles to the Orkney Islands is because its grid is provisioned 100 percent by wind, solar, and experimental green technologies call of development at the European Marine Energy Centre itself. “We have been clever to run really well on what most land-based data centers mark an unreliable grid,” Fowers said.

Ben Cutler, a project manager for Activity Natick, believes that co-located offshore wind farms could viably power development deployments similar to the Northern Isles. Even light wind circumstances would likely be enough to power the pods, with a shore powerline bundled in with the pod’s fiber-optic evidence cabling as a last resort. Cutler also notes that the seawater unperturbed for such deployments isn’t just cheaper than traditional cooling—it excepts freshwater resources vital to humans and wildlife untapped.

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