Microsoft’s undersea datacenter is 8x more reliable than land centers

Usually get in trouble when we take our electronics into the water. Game Boys don’t work in the pool, apparently. But Microsoft’s Project Natick dumped 864 servers into the water for two years and is just pulling them out for what it’s considering a successful experiment. Underwater data centers, Microsoft says, might be “feasibly…logistically, environmentally, and economically practical.”

Eight times more reliable

Two years ago, Microsoft dunked a self-contained datacenter into the waters off the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland. The pod contained 12 racks with 864 servers. Microsoft says the pod had a hardware failure rate one eighth of traditional land-locked datacenters. The Project Natick team believes this huge improvement comes from a few factors. First, Microsoft filled the pod not with oxygen, but a less-corrosive nitrogen atmosphere. Second, the off-shore server didn’t have any people around to bump and jostle components.

Microsoft says it learned a bunch of stuff from the experiment. The improved failure rate is a significant enough difference to offset the cost of the underwater deployment.

“I have an economic model that says if I lose so many servers per unit of time, I’m at least at parity with land,” said Ben Cutler, a project manager in Microsoft’s Special Projects research group. “We are considerably better than that.”

Environmentally sustainable

The project is also informing the team about ways to power and cool data centers. The data centers could be deployed alongside offshore windfarms, for example. The cooler undersea environment allows for generally more energy-efficient designs; Microsoft says these pods could leverage heat-exchange plumbing. In other words, the biggest water-cooled computer with the biggest reservoir ever. The project “has shown that datacenters can be operated and kept cool without tapping freshwater resources that are vital to people, agriculture and wildlife.” Even the less-frequent hardware replacement is a significant environmental improvement when taken at scale.

Half of the world’s population lives within 120 miles of coastline. Based on the success of this experiment, it’s not wild to think this could become a more common sight in five or ten years.

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