Microsoft Creates Underwater Data Centers

Robert Perez/Staff Illustrator

Janani Ravikumar
Staff Writer

The future of data centers may be twenty thousand leagues under the sea — at least, that’s what researchers at Microsoft believe. The company tested a prototype of a data center hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface, eliminating any problems that come with generating a lot of heat, such as an exorbitant air conditioning bill.

Project Natick, according to Microsoft’s official site, seeks to understand the benefits and drawbacks of deploying such data centers. The prototype, dubbed Leona Philpot after a popular Xbox game character, operated roughly one kilometer off the Pacific coast of the United States from August to November 2015. The goal is to better serve cloud customers in areas near large bodies of water, where nearly 50 percent of society resides. This reflects an increasing need for data resources located close to users.

The idea behind cloud computing, as established by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is to enable “ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”

This model is based on five essential characteristics: on-demand self-service, broad network access, resource pooling, rapid elasticity and measured service. It also relies on three service models: software as a service, platform as a service and infrastructure as a service. The model uses four deployment models: private cloud, community cloud, public cloud and hybrid cloud.

Ideally, Natick data centers will be fully recycled or made from recycled material that will later be recycled at the end of the data center’s life, according to the official site. They will be co-located with offshore renewable energy sources, so there would truly be no waste products. In addition, the rate at which servers are refreshed with new and improved hardware is expected to slow significantly in the data center.

This creates long-lived, resilient data centers that operate “lights out,” or with nobody on-site for the entire life of the deployment. The data centers are intended to last up to five years on the ocean’s surface. After each five-year deployment cycle, the data center will be retrieved and reloaded with new computers, then redeployed with a target lifespan of at least 20 years.

Microsoft isn’t the first company to search for renewable sources of energy to power their data centers. According to the Guardian, Google has been the most ambitious in this regard by buying wind energy and injecting it into the local grids where it runs data centers. Other tech giants like Facebook and Apple have followed this trend, receiving kudos from Greenpeace, while others like Amazon and Oracle have earned poor grades from Greenpeace for not showing a willingness to use clean energy for their data centers.

“Experimental underwater data centers could be more sustainable if connected to offshore wind power,” Tom Dowdall, a climate campaigner at Greenpeace, said, according to BBC. “But Microsoft must focus more on investing in new renewable energy now. Microsoft is far behind Apple, Google and Facebook in sourcing renewable energy for existing data centers.”