Summary: Microsoft® is testing an energy self-sufficient modular datacenter which is cooled by ocean water.


Most people know that datacenters (DCs) consume huge amounts of energy, but it may surprise some to learn how much energy they actually use. A US government study estimated that in 2014, datacenters in the US consumed 70 billion kWh of electricity, which is approximately 1.8% of the country’s total electrical energy consumption for the year! It has also been estimated that datacenters were responsible for about 2% of global greenhouse emissions during the same period.


Most of the energy is used to cool the servers, but it’s important to remember that they require electricity to run, as well. It comes as no surprise that virtually every DC owner is sensitive to this, both from a cost perspective, and as they attempt to be environmentally responsible. As an increasing number of businesses and individuals rely upon cloud computing, the numbers will increase, as datacenters become larger and more plentiful.


Organizations such as Apple®, Amazon™, Microsoft and others have become relatively efficient when it comes to powering their centers, and many are solely reliant upon renewable energy, but Microsoft is testing a datacenter that will require less energy, regardless of it’s source.


Project Natick


Microsoft’s Project Natick is a multi-year research project to determine the feasibility of self-sufficient underwater datacenters. On June 1, 2018, they deployed Northern Isles off the coast of Scotland at the European Marine Energy Centre.


Northern Isles is a 40 x 10-foot container with twelve racks, containing 864 servers. It has 27.6 petabytes of disk space with FPGA acceleration. By operating under water, the consistently cool water greatly reduces the need for cooling, which makes the test unit much more energy efficient than datacenters on land. Microsoft is working with the Naval Group in France to design a cooling system which is similar to that which is used on submarines. Another energy-saving measure is that traditional datacenters require lights, oxygen and room for humans, but those aren’t necessary for Northern Isles. As a result, Northern Isles requires just 240 KW to operate at full capacity. It receives its power from nearby wind and solar infrastructure, but The European Marine Energy Centre is a test site for experimental “tidal turbines” and wave energy converters that generate electricity from the movement of the water, which could someday provide power.


Microsoft believes underwater datacenters can operate without maintenance for up to five years, which is the estimated lifespan of the computers onboard. After five years, the container will be retrieved, equipped with new computers/servers, and redeployed. The target lifespan of the container is at least twenty years, after which it will be retrieved and recycled.


Market potential


Microsoft noted that more than half the world’s population lives within 120 miles of a coast. If successful, the underwater datacenters will be built to the size that meets the needs of the specific market. The proximity to coastal cities would result in fast and smooth data transmission, often due to a single internet hop.


If Microsoft (or whomever) can successfully develop a cost effective self-sufficient DC, they could deploy them in areas which are not feasible today, and possibly reduce the need for expensive back-up generators in areas with unreliable power grids. Microsoft currently estimates 90 days from factory shipment to operation.


The test DC in Scotland is the second phase of Project Natick. The first was a 10’ x 7’ proof-of-concept container which spent three months off the coast of California during 2015. Phase one only contained the computing power of about 300 desktop PCs, but it was a valuable tool to prove whether it could endure environmental variables and be left unattended successfully. Microsoft would periodically send a diver to check on the container, but the daily monitoring was done from the Redmond campus, using cameras and various remote sensors.


After the success of Phase One, the plan for Phase Two (Northern Isles) was to make it full scale, deploy it in deeper and more harsh conditions, and power it with renewable energy. Microsoft reminds us that the project is early in the research stage and it’s too soon to determine whether it will ultimately be feasible, but it appears promising so far.


Jul 2018