Diving deep for data.

Back in the 1960s, when renowned marine researcher Jacques Cousteau was diving to discover the secrets of the deep, little did he know that he was blazing a trail to establish data centers on the sea bed.

Over half a century later, software giant Microsoft has come up with a radical new way to process data – by parking it under the sea. It maintains that this inventive solution will help to save on both real estate and cooling costs.

The Microsoft initiative, dubbed ‘Project Natick’ has just tested its first underwater data center, named ‘Leona Philpot’ after the Halo computer game character. The self-contained pod, encased in steel, was lowered to the seafloor approximately one kilometer off the Pacific coast of the US between August and November 2015. It was equipped with sensors to monitor environmental conditions, as well as gauging motion, pressure and humidity.

“Project Natick reflects Microsoft’s ongoing quest for cloud data center solutions that offer rapid provisioning, lower costs, high responsiveness, and are more environmentally sustainable,” Microsoft explained on its project website. The vision is that eventually the underwater data centers could operate for around twenty years, without onsite support, and could be powered by offshore renewable energy sources, which would produce zero emissions.

Microsoft has outlined two key reasons for experimenting with underwater data centers. Firstly, half of the world’s population is located within 200 km of a coast, so this would help reduce the time it would take for data to travel from the data centers to customers. Secondly, locating the data centers in the sea reduces the need for expensive cooling which has a detrimental effect on the planet.

Other data center initiatives

Microsoft isn’t the first technology giant in a quest for new ‘greener’ ways to house data. In 2013, Facebook set up an 84 acre data center site in Lulea, near the Arctic Circle. It runs on renewable energy from hydroelectric schemes. Freezing air pumped into the data center site acts as a natural coolant. The company is now opening another data center in Clonee, Ireland, which will take advantage of renewable energy from the country’s wind resources.  Facebook’s goal is to run data centers on 50 percent clean and renewable energy by 2018.  

Another is document storage company Iron Mountain, which has taken over a former limestone mine in Pennsylvania in the US and built an energy-efficient data center known as Room 48. The limestone walls absorb heat, eliminating the need for expensive data center cooling systems.

Microsoft, however, has its eyes fixed firmly on the ocean. It believes that if it can mass-produce underwater data center pods it can cut the deployment timeframe down to around 90 days, offering huge cost savings.  It currently takes around two years to set up a data center on dry land.

The next big challenge are the servers. Microsoft’s underwater data centers have been designed to be left in their locations for up to five years without maintenance, so very rugged servers are going to be required to achieve this. Microsoft remains undaunted and is working on technology for a larger trial to take place next year.

Environmental group Greenpeace, however, is unimpressed with Microsoft’s Project Natick and believes the software giant needs to do more in terms of renewable energy for the idea to take off.

"Experimental underwater data centres could be more sustainable if connected to offshore wind power, 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 centres," commented Tom Dowdall, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace International.

Transporting data underwater is of course nothing new.  According to NEC 98 percent of data is already transmitted via subsea cables. While it may be some time before we see data centers strung out on fiber-optic cables across the sea floor, the race is definitely on to find sites for data centers that have the least impact on the environment.

Find out about the environmentally-friendly data center that Orange has built in Normandy, France. It uses free cooling to control the temperature in the data centers for 11 months in the year.