The company wanted to see if a sealed container on the ocean floor would be more reliable than those on land.
In 2018 Microsoft submerged a data center on the Orkney Islands, near the Scottish coast, a small cylindrical tank 12 meters long and 3 meters in diameter with 864 servers. Known as Project Natick, the experiment sought to demonstrate the feasibility of submersible data centers. Two years later he has rescued him from the depths and there is already a verdict.
UNDER THE SEA
Microsoft’s hypothesis is that a sealed container on the ocean floor could provide ways to improve the overall reliability of data centers. On land, corrosion from oxygen and moisture, temperature fluctuations, and shocks from people replacing components shorten the life of data centers.
But in a passively cooled and controlled environment, like the ocean floor, a hub could be much more reliable. Microsoft in fact not only submerged this cylinder completely sealed but also eliminated all the oxygen inside, filling it exclusively with nitrogen to try to extend the useful life of the components.
The result has been very satisfactory. One of the biggest problems Microsoft faced was predictable server failures. In a conventional data center, they can be replaced in a matter of hours, but in a facility like this, there is no way to replace a faulty component.
In two years, however, of the 864 servers, only eight failed, an eighth of those registered in a control group installed on land. The container was in very good condition despite the strong ocean currents in the area, with only a small layer of algae and barnacles on the outside that could be easily cleaned.
The entire project was also powered by solar and wind energy harvested on the Orkney Islands themselves. “The Natick Project has shown that data centers can be operated and kept cool without taking advantage of freshwater resources that are vital to people, agriculture and wildlife,” says Ben Cutler, Special Projects Manager at the company.
More than half of the world’s population lives 200 kilometers from the coast. Putting data centers underwater close to coastal cities would cause data to travel shorter distances than now separating the infrastructure cores from the network.
Thanks to this, a lower latency could be achieved when watching videos or playing games remotely. Microsoft believes that these types of data centers could remain submerged for five years, powered 100% by renewable energy, and emerge only after that time to perform maintenance tasks, if necessary. Diving or recovering these centers only take a day of work.
During these two years, the computing power of the Natick project’s data center has been dedicated to the distributed computing program Folding @ home, which recreates the dynamics of different proteins with the aim of finding new drugs and therapies. That also means that in recent months it has dedicated part of its calculation capacity to the search for possible vaccines against Covid-19.