Microsoft recently sank a data center the size of a shipping container in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. You might be forgiven for thinking that the sea’s proximity to half the world’s population, cheap power, and free cooling are the only reasons behind the decision.
Basically, what Microsoft is doing is creating and deploying a submarine for servers. Placing submarines underwater is not a new thing. In fact, marine biologists have done it for so long, just not at scale.
Microsoft has really benefited from the knowledge acquired from the marine industry. From the marine industry, we know how to build large objects, how to cool ship engines and how to prevent the growth of barnacles on underwater surfaces.
So what Microsoft is doing is quite modest in terms of scale. Also, the data center will be deployed at a relatively shallow depth.
So what other reasons does Microsoft have for placing a data center underwater?
1) To take advantage of an already existing supply chain
The hardware expertise and material necessary to sink a data center already exists. For example, the 864 servers, FPGA boards and 12 racks used to populate the data center came from a Microsoft Azure data center that was already operating on dry land.
Also, the cylindrical enclosure used to house all the above equipment was built, not by a novice, but by Naval Group, a reputable and established ocean engineering company. In fact, Naval Group can manufacture the cylinders at scale once Microsoft deems the project successful.
2) Better Timeframes and Economies than Building a Data Center on Land
Instead of a building, the cylinder and its components are manufactured in factories. This makes it possible to use the standard logistical supply chain to ship the container and its contents to any location.
The container is the size of a shipping container for a reason: portability. It was transported by a truck from France, loaded onto a ferry to cross the English Channel, driven across England, and placed on another ferry to its final destination in the Orkney Islands for deployment.
The benefit of this portability is that it allows for rapid expansion without burning through a lot of capital upfront. A data center on land takes between 18 and 24 months to complete. The portable underwater data centers can be delivered anywhere in 90 days.
3) Warranty Savings
The data centers will remain underwater for 5 to 10 years. Then, all the servers will be replaced with new ones and the old ones put to other uses as newer hardware will be available.
Every component supplier is expected to keep an inventory of all components sold during the product’s life. The underwater data center gets rid of all of that. Even if Microsoft wants a vendor to replace a faulty device, 5 years will be over and better equipment will be available.
4) The Small Data Center Can Run Autonomously and Be Scaled Easily
The data center deployed in the Orkney Island is a single module. However, it is designed to connect with other modules for scale. In this case, there might be the need for a master node to offer connectivity and power distribution to other nodes.
Each module would, thus, be similar to the rows of racks found in a typical data center. The top-of-rack switch can connect to spine switches to enable communication between all the racks. This enables communication between modules that may be quite a distance apart.
5) Underwater Data Centers Are Environmentally-Friendly
The data center has a manifold with a variety of valves. By manipulating these valves, Microsoft engineers will be able to test different cooling strategies.
The underwater data center does not have an external heat exchanger. Instead, Microsoft is pumping raw seawater through the heat exchangers located at the rear of the rack, before pumping it out again. This is the technique used to cool submarine and ship engines.
The speed of pumping sea water in and out of the heat exchanger will discourage the growth of barnacle. Moreover, the cooling system’s design can work under high-performance computing such as AI.
For power generation, the data center uses tidal electricity generators that belong to the European Marine Energy Center. There are plans to introduce tidal power generation because of its reliability and predictability. Together with batteries, this will create true redundancy.
6) No Stress on Local City Resources
Since the underwater data centers use ocean water for both power generation and cooling, it is possible to deploy them in many locations. Unlike in the past, modern land-based data centers use water for cooling instead of electricity. This drives down operational cost dramatically.
This is why modern data centers have a line to the city water supply. While the water supply in developed countries is reliable, it could be especially demanding on the water and power supply of cities in developing countries resulting in a reduced quality of life.
7) No Staffing or Oxygen Needed
Microsoft’s underwater data centers are designed such that they can run without interference for five years. There is no need to staff, hence no payroll. There are also lower failure rates because when people fix things, they also could create other problems.
Most of the cost, however, is in placing the module on the seabed and retrieving it for component repair and replacement.
Without humans, there is no need for oxygen in the data center. Instead, Microsoft filled it with dry nitrogen to maintain a temperature of 12C. This in addition to the elimination of moisture and problems such as corrosion and connector issues.
Filling the modules with nitrogen is cost-effective because 70% of the earth’s atmosphere is nitrogen. As such, manufacturing nitrogen and filling up space with it is quite inexpensive.