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Microsoft's Underwater Data Center

Water is likely not the first place you think of for a location of a data center, but that is exactly what Microsoft thought in 2018, when they sunk a data center off the coast of Orkney Islands in Scotland for what they have dubbed Project Natick. The goal of the underwater data center was to determine if being housed in cool temperature can improve energy efficiency and reduce costs that are normally associated with cooling servers on land, reported Rory Cellan-Jones for BBC in 2018.

Originally set to remain underwater for up to five years, the data center was recently brought to the surface, in September, two years after its initial submersion.

“When the container was hauled off the seabed around half a mile offshore after being placed there in May 2018, just eight out of the 855 servers on board had failed,” says Cellan-Jones in a follow-up piece for BBC.

Microsoft has reported that the success rate of the underwater data center is eight times more reliable than its on-land counterparts.

The data center is still being closely examined by researchers, the center was well-functioning after its years underwater – and even had sea life such as barnacles and anemone on its hull. A few failed servers and related cables have been extracted from the data center for further investigation.

Overall, the lack of damage or degradation is a good sign that underwater data centers could be used more frequently in the future – while the information gathered from the experiment also helps to improve land-based centers.

“The team hypothesizes that the atmosphere of nitrogen, which is less corrosive than oxygen, and the absence of people to bump and jostle components, are the primary reasons for the difference,” reports Microsoft. “If the analysis proves this correct, the team may be able to translate the findings to land datacenters.”

One of the primary reasons the Orkney Islands were selected as the test location is the areas dedication to green energy.

“Project Natick was partly about working out whether clusters of small underwater data centres for short-term use might be a commercial proposition, but also an attempt to learn broader lessons about energy efficiency in cloud computing,” says Cellan-Jones.

The Orkney Islands’ electricity is fully green – coming entirely from wind and solar power. The data center test helped prove that green energy can fully sustain such a system. There were no concerns over the two years with consistently supplying power to the center.

Another potential benefit to an underwater data center is its mobility, says David Ross, a consultant in the data center industry.

As reported by Cellan-Jones, Ross says, “You could effectively move something to a more secure location without having all the huge infrastructure costs of constructing a building. It's flexible and cost effective.”

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