50% of us live near the coast. Why doesn’t our data?

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Image source: Microsoft

Starting from this statement Microsoft has been working throughout the latest years with pioneers in marine energy to achieve the ambitious goal of Project Natick to develop self-sufficient underwater datacenters that can deliver lightning-quick cloud services to coastal cities (and save energy).

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Image source: Microsoft

The initial statement is not random since more than half the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the coast and, by putting datacenters underwater near coastal cities, data would have a short distance to travel, leading to fast and smooth web surfing, video streaming and game playing. Moreover, it would be also a concept for saving energy through the use of 100% renewable energy, considered unreliable for most land-based data centers, and by saving vital freshwater resources since underwater data centers can be operated and kept cool thanks to the heat-exchange plumbing, commonly used for cooling submarines the system pipes seawater directly through the radiators on the back of each of the server racks and back out into the ocean.

Earlier this summer, marine specialists reeled up a shipping-container-size datacenter coated in algae, barnacles, and sea anemones from the seafloor off Scotland’s Orkney Islands.

The Northern Isles datacenter was deployed back in 2018, and for the next two years, a Microsoft team tested and monitored the performance of the datacenter’s servers.

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Image source: Microsoft

The retrieval, followed by the outstanding results, launched the final phase of the project that proved the concept of underwater datacenters being feasible, as well as logistically, environmentally, and economically practical.

The Natick team, having only recently retrieved the 40-foot long datacenter loaded with 12 racks containing a total of 864 servers and associated cooling system infrastructure, is still assessing how the infrastructure has performed.

Most importantly the researchers hope that closely analyzing the hardware will help them understand why the servers in the underwater datacenter are eight times more reliable than those on land.

The team hypothesizes that the servers’ atmosphere of nitrogen, which is less corrosive than oxygen, and the absence of people to bump and jostle components, are the primary reasons for the difference. If the analysis proves this correct, the team may be able to translate the findings to land datacenters.

The logistic advantage may be even more important than the cooling or performance one. It takes significant time and specialized effort to acquire and develop commercial real estate for a traditional data center in a major city — building a sealed pod and deploying it on the seafloor nearby would be considerably easier and faster.

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Image source: Microsoft

Demand for datacenter resources across the computing industry is growing exponentially as corporations increasingly shift their networks and computing needs to the cloud, and internet-connected intelligent devices ranging from smartphones to robots proliferate.

Ben Cutler, project manager in the special projects group within Microsoft’s research organization who leads the Project Natick team, underscored the need for innovation in the race to build out what is fast becoming a critical piece of 21st-century infrastructure with this statement.

“When you are in this kind of exponential growth curve, it tells you that most of the datacenters that we’ll ever build we haven’t built yet”

Article by Brando Coleman

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