Microsoft May Deploy More Undersea Data Centers

April 20, 2016
Microsoft says it will continue to develop its design for undersea data centers, and may deploy a larger test of its unmanned server farms on the ocean floor.

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Microsoft will continue to develop its design for undersea data centers. The cloud giant is intrigued with the potential benefits of unmanned server farms on the ocean floor, and may deploy a larger test site in the near future.

In a presentation at the DatacenterDynamics Enterprise conference, Microsoft’s Ben Cutler said the Project Natick prototype operated with no hardware failures and exceptional energy efficiency.

The sealed container was deployed last fall in about 30 feet of water off the coast of California. The Microsoft team sealed the servers inside the container, operated them on the ocean floor for 105 days, and has been analyzing the results.

The initial deployment showed promising results, said Cutler, Microsoft’s Project Manager with the Natick team. Microsoft is still in the early stages of developing the concept, but it’s clear that the company’s interest in underwater data centers won’t be a one-time science experiment.

Larger Deployment Likely

“We’re planning what the next step will be,” said Cutler. “We haven’t worked out the details yet. It might be about four times larger, about the size of a container.” He said the next deployment would also house more servers, with perhaps half a megawatt of IT capacity.

An artist’s conception of what the next phase of Microsoft’s undersea data center research might look like. (Image: Microsoft)

These pods of modules could be aggregated to create a server farm of up to 20 megawatts or more, said Cutler, which could then provide low-latency access to large populations of cloud users living close to the shoreline.

“We are a coastal society,” said Cutler. “We like the ocean. By deploying these in the ocean, we can reach more people more easily than the land-based data centers of today.”

Here’s what these undersea data centers might look like:

Undersea data center containers could be grouped together and lowered to the ocean floor. The concept include turbines to generate power from ocean waves and currents. (Image: Microsoft)

The Future May Look Different

Cutler’s talk was the most provocative in a series of sessions at DatacenterDynamics Enterprise on how the future of the data center industry will be shaped by emerging technologies like the Internet of things, virtual reality and machine learning.

Microsoft’s long-term vision is to be able to create large data centers several miles off the coast, operating 600 feet under the surface with only a network connection. Power would be generated from offshore sources, either from wind power or turbines driven by ocean currents. These data centers would consist of a series of unmanned data center modules, effectively larger versions of the Project Natick deployment.

The Project Natick research prototype is part of Microsoft’s ongoing quest to find affordable ways to deploy sustainable cloud data centers. The 10 foot by 7 foot container was deployed last August 15 in about 30 feet of water off the coast of California. The Microsoft team sealed the servers inside the container, and monitored them as the data center operated for 105 days on the ocean floor. It was retrieved in November and trucked back to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washingon for further analysis.

A Greener Operating Model

Cutler said there were no hardware failures in initial three month deployment, and that the cooling system worked well and surpassed some of the Natick team’s efficiency goals. “That gives us the confidence to go to environments that are deeper and cooler,” he said.

The primary advantage of a maritime data center is the ability to slash costs by using water to power or cool the data center, and avoiding the expense of real estate and property taxes. These ideas build on previous seagoing IT operations – both the U.S. Navy and major cruise lines have maintained sophisticated telecom and IT infrastructure for decades – and add power and cooling technologies that can slash costs.[clickToTweet tweet=”Future evolutions will require only a network connection, with energy provided by offshore sources.” quote=”Future evolutions will require only a network connection, with energy provided by offshore sources.”]

Cutler said future evolutions of Natick will require only a network connection from shore, with energy provided by offshore sources. Microsoft is looking at the viability of marine hydroelectric energy, in which turbines generate electricity using the motion of ocean water, either through waves or ocean currents. This could include tappping gyres like the Gulf Stream.

There are other sustainability benefits. Project Natick can operate with no carbon output, and no water is required. The simpler structure uses fewer materials than land-based data centers, is fully recyclable, and requires less maintenance.

Focus on Business Benefits

While the sustainability profile is excellent, Microsoft is perhaps more focused on the potential business benefits of Project Natick. These include:

  • Improved speed and agility, with the ability to deploy within 90 days
  • A lower total cost of ownership (TCO) than land-based data centers.
  • Low-latency delivery of cloud services to the large populations along coastlines.
  • Better physical security than land-based data centers.

Another benefit is the ability to operate unmanned in a “light out” environment, as Microsoft already does with some of its IT-PAC data center modules.

“We’re gradually moving to this idea of a lights-out data center,” said Cutler. “In our model we take the people out of the data center.”

Ben Cutler, Project Manager for Microsoft’s Project Natick, speaking Wednesday at the Datacenter Dynamics Enterprise conference in New York. (Photo: Rich Miller)

The economics of undersea data centers may improve as server refresh rates grow longer, as expected.

“Today we don’t care if we can keep a server in service for 10 years, because we’re going to replace them after two years,” said Cutler. “If we’re going to use them for four or five years, the reliability matters more. This environment will help us extend the life of our servers.”

Looking Offshore for Solutions

Microsoft’s experiment continues the data center industry’s decade-long effort to harness the power of the sea to create sustainable data centers, tapping the waves and water to power and cool armadas of cloud servers. It ties together three data center trends we’ve been tracking here at Data Center Frontier – ocean-based facilities, the emergence of edge computing and unmanned data centers.

The company also sees the submarine data center project as an opportunity to rethink many of the form factors that have traditionally been used for servers and storage, which must account for the need for humans to access the equipment and replace components or refresh servers. Operating in full unmanned “lights out” mode allows new approaches that need account only for heat removal, rather than access.[clickToTweet tweet=”Microsoft’s Ben Cutler: We’re gradually moving to this idea of a lights-out data center.” quote=”Microsoft’s Ben Cutler: We’re gradually moving to this idea of a lights-out data center.”]

An example: The Natick module was filled with nitrogen to assist with heat removal and extend the life of components. Because the system is sealed, dust doesn’t accumulate on components. The cooling system uses an inside cooling loop and an external heat exchanger, which uses marine “keel coolers” and some custom designs by Microsoft.

The Road Ahead

Microsoft said its initial deployment of Project Natick had no negative impact on the surrounding ocean environment. The module produced very little heat, and crabs and other ocean life quickly gathered on the exterior of the module. Cutler said Microsoft is investigating deployment methods to ensure that data centers in deeper waters will not impact the environment.

“It turns out that here’s a whole field of research on artificial reefs,” said Cutler. “There’s a whole art of how you construct these so you have biovalue but don’t damage or undermine nearby natural reefs. We’ve got some academics that we’re working with on this. We don’t want to damage the ecosystem.”

Cutler said Microsoft is also exploring issues around water rights and the requirements for deploying data center capacity in offshore waters. “It turns out that’s a complicated thing,” said Cutler, noting that federal and state waters may have different permitting processes. But he also noted that the overhead may not be more onerous than municipal permits required for building data centers.

Back on land, Microsoft continues its furious pace of deploying cloud capacity in traditional data centers on land.  The company has reserved 47 megawatts of space with deals in northern Virginia, Silicon Valley and San Antonio, which will enable Microsoft to quickly ramp up its cloud operations to meet demand.

There are also reports that Microsoft will move away from the data center modules that have been one of their primary form factors for deploying cloud servers.

About the Author

Rich Miller

I write about the places where the Internet lives, telling the story of data centers and the people who build them. I founded Data Center Knowledge, the data center industry's leading news site. Now I'm exploring the future of cloud computing at Data Center Frontier.

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