As the digital economy accelerates, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep the world’s data centres at lower temperatures, but submersible steel modules could provide a surprising solution
Off the coast of Scotland’s Orkney Islands, Microsoft has pioneered a new type of next-generation data centre that could change the flow of internet traffic around the world. Dubbed Project Natick, the venture aims to deliver faster internet connectivity to coastal cities, and tackle the growing problem of overheating servers by placing them at the icy depths of the sea floor.
Being submerged approximately one kilometre underwater may not sound like the ideal environment for hundreds of sophisticated computer servers, but the idea does have some compelling advantages.
Conventional data centres require enormous warehouses that take up a lot of real estate. According to the United Nations, around 40% of the world’s population now lives within 100 kilometres of the coast, where land is at a premium. Because of this, Microsoft anticipates the development of underwater data centres will be vital to keep up with growing demand for faster internet connectivity.
Project Natick is the software giant’s flagship step into this bold new world. To deliver such an ambitious vision, Microsoft knew it needed to partner with a team that understood the pressures of working in aquatic environments, so it reached out to French marine renewable energy and defence specialists Naval Group.
The central role of steel
One of the most important challenges was to ensure that the module was protected from the icy water, and robust enough to operate without the need for regular maintenance; indeed, the data centre has been designed to remain in operation, without maintenance, for five years.
The materials chosen for the outer structure were therefore particularly important. That’s why the module was encased in a 12-metre long and 2.4-metre in diameter stainless steel tube. The structure contains 864 servers and has been primed with the same zinc-rich coating that Naval Group uses to protect its submarines from ocean corrosion.
In the future, Microsoft hopes to be able to fully power deep-sea data centres with tidal energy from water turbines. This would mean that completely self-sufficient servers could be rapidly deployed off coastlines to meet demand for internet connectivity. But with no easy access for maintenance, they’ll need to rely on the durability of steel to keep the data centres operating in such an unorthodox environment.
[UPDATE: Microsoft has now concluded project Natick. Following analysis of the data from the retrieved units, Microsoft has discovered that the steel-built offshore submerged data centres perform well and that the servers contained within them are up to eight times more reliable than dry land equivalents.
The decreased need for cooling also allowed the data centres to operate with greater energy efficiency, further underlining the viability of smaller, decentralised data services that are closer to the customers who use them.]