Microsoft wants to dive into new areas for placing data centers. The company is experimenting with putting new data centers under water to reduce cooling costs and accelerate delivery.
The Ocean Floor
Putting data centers at ocean depths provides one practical benefit — it reduces the need for air conditioning to keep components from heating up. It also reduces the time to build data centers at a time when demand is growing rapidly and opens up other research possibilities, too.
The Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft recently completed a test of one self-contained data center that performed beyond its expectations.
Air conditioning is no small matter. It is one of the costliest factors for technology businesses. Data centers contain thousands of servers that emit a lot of heat. When the equipment gets too hot, it crashes. Cold ocean water would remedy that problem.
If, as Microsoft is considering, these data centers are powered by tidal systems or turbines to generate electricity, the company will have also helped solve the increasing demand for energy throughout the computer industry.
There are two possible structures under consideration right now. In one, containers that resemble jelly beans would be suspended underwater to use tidal or turbine energy. The second option would feature arrays of large steel tubes connected by fiber optics sitting on the ocean floor.
Granted, there are concerns that could delay or derail these plans, including unanticipated technical issues and environmental impacts.
Demand for data servers is growing as the economy becomes more digitally connected
The delivery of digital entertainment is one such driver. Another is the rise of the Internet of Things, which are devices fitted with software, sensors and wireless tech allowing them to “talk” with each other. Today server centers are often built in remote areas, while most of the world’s population lives near bodies of water. Proximity to served populations would make the deployment of new data centers much faster.
Microsoft recently finished a trial of an underwater data center. The 105-day test sank an eight-foot diameter steel capsule into 30 feet of water off of San Luis Obispo, California, in the Pacific Ocean. The large white tube is sealed at both ends with bolted metal plates. The tube is adorned with heat exchangers. Inside sits a lone computing rack that was coated in pressurized nitrogen to improve the dissipation of heat from the computer chips while it sat on the ocean floor.
The data center was controlled remotely from Microsoft’s Redmond campus. The data center was equipped with 100 sensors measuring humidity, pressure, and motion to understand how such a device would function. Researchers had been concerned about leaks and hardware failures. In fact, the data center performed better than expected and the experiment was extended, during which time it even ran some data processing from a Microsoft cloud computing service, Azure.
Largely as a result of those tests, Microsoft researchers are building a system three times larger than the prototype. It’s also looking for a partner to create an ocean-based energy system. The company projects that this new trial will begin in 2017, perhaps in Florida or Northern Europe.
The promise of underwater data centers may lead to other innovations. The capsules are designed to last as long as five years without maintenance. That means developing servers that do not need repairs. While such servers are not viable right now, those innovations could change the way land-based servers operate too.
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