Microsoft has successfully completed a 105-day trial of an underwater data centre in an initiative called Project Natick. Research has shown that the number of data centres being built around the world will continue growing until they peak at 8.6 million in 2017. With the rise of big data and cloud technology, data centres are being used to power an increasing amount of our online activity. However, data centres need to be kept cool as overheating can cause the computer servers within to crash. Facebook built a data centre in northern Sweden to save on cooling costs. Google built one in Finland that is kept cool by sea water. Microsoft has gone one step further by trialling a data centre under the sea.
A 17-tonne steel cylinder, named the Leona Philpot, was placed 30 feet under water in the Pacific Ocean, about 1 kilometre off the Central California coast. It was fitted with a single computing rack sealed in a pressurized container filled with nitrogen, which had the processing power of roughly 300 desktop computers. It also contained more than 100 different sensors so that Microsoft engineers could monitor the humidity, pressure and motion conditions inside and outside the capsule, as well as the impact on its environment.
Microsoft has stated that the trial proved more successful than expected. It showed that not only do underwater data centres save money on cooling costs, they can also reduce the amount it takes to transfer data from a server to the user, as about half of the world's population lives within 200 kilometres of the ocean. The company has also stated that an underwater data centre could be powered with a turbine or a tidal energy system to generate electricity. This would mean that no additional heating would be generated in the ocean by data centre. Microsoft also found that any noise the underwater data centre produced was drowned out by the noise of nearby shrimp.
The company has said it would be able to build and deploy an underwater data centre in just 90 days, instead of the two years it takes on land. This would save a huge amount of time and resources, and would have the advantage of being able to provide emergency or extra capacity when needed.
The project is still in the early stages of development and Microsoft is expecting to trial a system three times the size of the Leona Philpot next year. Whilst the concept of underwater data centres does appear to have its advantages, there are still many concerns regarding cost, logistics and data privacy that will need to be properly addressed before it becomes a reality.