There was a time, just a few years ago, when it seemed like every major tech company was finally realizing the huge environmental footprint of their data centers. The cooling of the servers, as it had been traditionally done, required lots of water and lots of electricity, not to mention the powering of the servers themselves, which were multiplying steadily as cloud computing grew.
In the last few years we’ve luckily seen tech companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft take on this issue and start building innovative and more sustainable data centers. They’ve placed them in cooler climates to take advantage of open air cooling. They’ve started using more renewable energy. Microsoft has even built an entirely off-grid data center.
But there is still more work to do. Many data centers are still using the old water- and energy-hungry set ups and the demand for more servers as more data moves to the cloud keeps increasing. With this in mind, Microsoft researchers came up with an experiment to create an easily built and deployed data center that wouldn’t need extra cooling and could be powered by renewable energy. And then they sank it in the ocean.
The company built an underwater data center inspired by submarines because they’re built to withstand the rigors of the sea. The idea was to have a test vessel that wouldn’t be very far offshore so that it could hook into the electrical grid, but in future versions, the computing would be fully powered by the water — from the energy of the waves or tides. The data center would also be cooled by the surrounding cold water at the bottom of the ocean, cutting out that energy demand.
Half of the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the ocean, so having a data center right offshore would not only provide energy and cooling, but it would also reduce latency and increase data transmission speeds.
The company deployed the test vessel in August, a 10 feet by 7 feet, 38,000-pound container that housed a server rack with the computing power of about 300 desktop PCs. The researchers monitored the container from the Microsoft campus using cameras and sensors aboard the vessel that recorded temperature, humidity and power use of the system.
The data center spent 90 days on the sea floor with no human intervention other than a diver checking on the vessel once a month.
Microsoft said it’s still analyzing the results of the experiment, but that it proves that data centers can be deployed quickly in this type of scenario. Most land data centers require lots of tailoring to their environment and terrain, but the underwater containers could be mass produced and deployed as needed. The test vessel only took 3 months to build.
The team is now planning to submerge a four-times larger vessel with 20 times the computing power. This time they will leave it underwater for at least a year and have it run completely on ocean power. They are currently looking at test sites.
The team says that even if for some reason underwater data centers don’t end up being possible, the lessons learned from these tests, especially from having to build a data center that can be operated remotely and run on renewable energy, will bring about better, more sustainable data centers.
“We’re learning how to reconfigure firmware and drivers for disk drives, to get longer life out of them. We’re managing power, learning more about using less. These lessons will translate to better ways to operate our datacenters. Even if we never do this on a bigger scale, we’re learning so many lessons,” says Peter Lee, corporate vice president of Microsoft Research NExT.