Datacentres are generally speaking massive buildings that require oodles of cooling solutions, back up power and staff to maintain.
Two years ago, Microsoft embarked on a journey to find a better way to deploy datacentres and one of the options it explored was putting a datacentre on the seafloor.
Project Natick saw a sealed container filled with server equipment put on the sea floor off of Scotland’s Orkney Islands. There the container would sit for two years as Microsoft worked to see whether the concept was practical.
So the question then is, is it?
So far the short answer is yes.
On Monday, Project Natick was lifted from the seafloor with all manner of pulleys and robots. Microsoft’s teams then got to work gathering data and seeing how well the datacentre performed.
For one, the cool temperatures of the seafloor means Microsoft could deploy a cooling solution similar to that found in submarines. More than that, with these tubes of tech, Microsoft is able to deploy servers incredibly rapidly.
Of course we can’t talk about practicality without mentioning maintenance.
Project Natick was filled with dry nitrogen ahead of its trip to Davey Jones’ locker. Upon its reintroduction to the surface, Microsoft collected air samples to see how gases released from cables and other equipment have altered the environment if at all.
So what about hardware failures?
Microsoft reports that a handful of failed servers were found but incredibly, the servers were found to be eight times more reliable than servers on land.
The thinking right now is that because there is less oxygen and no people to bump into a server, the life of the equipment is extended.
Of course that is an initial speculation and more research is needed to determine exactly why tech in a tube at a the bottom of the ocean survives longer.
What is incredibly interesting for us, especially in a country where Eskom operates, is the power aspect of these datacentres.
The reason Natick was sunk off of the coast of Scotland is that the Orkney Islands use sustainable energy.
“We have been able to run really well on what most land-based datacentres consider an unreliable grid. We are hopeful that we can look at our findings and say maybe we don’t need to have quite as much infrastructure focused on power and reliability,” said principal member of technical staff for Microsoft’s Special Projects research group, Spencer Fowers.
Microsoft is considering co-locating undersea datacentres with windfarms stating that even with light wind, there would be enough power to drive the datacentre.
“As we are moving from generic cloud computing to cloud and edge computing, we are seeing more and more need to have smaller datacenters located closer to customers instead of these large warehouse datacentres out in the middle of nowhere,” said Fowers.
Even more important is that Natick doesn’t need fresh water meant for humans, livestock and agriculture to be cooled.
We’re of course quite a ways off of Project Natick becoming a reality but to see that the concept works for the most part.