Microsoft opens up its underwater datacentre

September 17, 2020 //By Nick Flaherty
Reliability of underwater datacentre drives distributed plans
Microsoft has recovered its Project Natick underwater data centre from the sea around Orkney, Scotland, which showed an 8x increase in reliability

The Project Natick team deployed the Northern Isles datacentre in 35m of water in spring 2018. Over the last two years, the team has tested and monitored the performance and reliability of the datacentre’s servers.

The team hypothesized that a sealed container on the ocean floor could provide ways to improve the overall reliability of datacentres. On land, corrosion from oxygen and humidity, temperature fluctuations and bumps and jostles from people who replace broken components are all variables that can contribute to equipment failure. The Northern Isles deployment confirmed the hypothesis with lessons for Microsoft’s datacentre sustainability strategy around energy, waste and water, said Ben Cutler, a project manager in Microsoft’s Special Projects research group who leads Project Natick.

The project showed a reliability eight times higher than that of datacentres on land. Out of the 864 servers in the underwater datacentre, only a handful failed.

This higher reliability has prompted discussions with a Microsoft team in Azure deploying and operating tactical and critical datacentres anywhere in the world using post-quantum encryption technology.

“We are populating the globe with edge devices, large and small,” said William Chappell, vice president of mission systems for Azure. “To learn how to make datacentres reliable enough not to need human touch is a dream of ours.”

More than half the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the coast, so putting datacentres underwater near coastal cities reduces the latency. The cool subsurface seas also allow for energy-efficient datacentre designs. For example, they can use heat-exchange plumbing such as that found on submarines.

“We are now at the point of trying to harness what we have done as opposed to feeling the need to go and prove out some more,” said Cutler. “We have done what we need to do. Natick is a key building block for the company to use if it is appropriate.”

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