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October 17, 2016

Offshore Data: Microsoft’s Undersea Data Center Experiment

Researchers at Microsoft believe that the future of data centers may lie under the ocean. Their assertion is that the underwater environment has potential to solve one of the IT industry’s most expensive problems: cooling costs.

According to Microsoft, the cold ocean water would provide natural cooling for hot servers; experts also believe they can pair the cooling technology with a hydroelectric system to generate power for the data center. Since a large percentage of the world’s population live near an ocean coast, the undersea location offers a solution to communication delays relating to distance of cloud data centers to end users.

Microsoft recently completed an experiment involving a steel capsule – the capsule was eight feet in diameter and was placed 30 feet under the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Central California. The capsule remained under water for 105 days, and the results were even more successful than researches anticipated. The system was expected to suffer from leaks and hardware failures; however, it remained operational. As a result, Microsoft extended the trial and used the underwater system for commercial data-processing projects associated with the Azure cloud computing service.

Efforts are now underway to design a system that is three times as large in collaboration with an ocean-based energy system developer. The program, code-named Project Natick, plans to construct steel tube infrastructures on the ocean floor or oval shaped containers that would hang beneath the ocean surface with energy-generating turbines. The idea for the undersea data center came from a research paper written by several Microsoft data center employees in 2014. One of the data center employees had previously served on a U.S. Navy submarine, which sparked the inspiration for the research.

If this research is successful, the undersea data centers could potentially cut the costs of cooling modern IT infrastructure and provide greater data capacity in closer proximity to billions of end users.