Microsoft’s Project Natick finds that underwater datacenters are reliable and effective


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Project Natick is Microsoft's research project to determine the feasibility of underwater datacenters that are powered by offshore renewable energy. These datacenters have been hailed as a promising venture in Microsoft's future in cloud computing when back in 2018, CEO Satya Nadella emphasized that the future of datacenter deployment lies in underwater server pods. Besides promising faster deployment, one of the primary advantages of this setup is the fact that by positioning datacenters closer to coastal settlements, we can reduce latency due to transmission delays.

Back in spring 2018, to test whether submerging a datacenter could improve its reliability, researchers lowered Microsoft's Northern Isles datacenter 117 feet underwater to the seafloor near the Orkney Islands in Scotland. After a lengthy period of testing involving the 864 servers onboard, on July 9, the datacenter was recovered and Microsoft has now finally revealed what it has learned from its experimentation.

The Project Natick researchers announced that their initial hypothesis was indeed correct. Underwater datacenters can improve the reliability of datacenters while being powered by offshore renewable energy. This is majorly due to the fact that land datacenters suffer from natural phenomena like temperature fluctuations, corrosion, and humidity, which lead to frequent equipment failure, and subsequently, the need for regular maintenance. But underwater, they are in a relatively cooler environment that is less prone to such factors. In fact, the cooler environment underwater allows for energy-efficient heat-exchange plumbing that can further lower operational costs.

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Microsoft states that Natick Northern Isles datacenter had a failure rate of 1/8th that of the land-based control group that it was compared with. This showcases the practicality and reliability of hosting underwater datacenters that serve our cloud computing needs. The Redmond giant had already gauged its deployment speed back in 2018. While deploying a land-based data center can take up to two years due to the expensive cooling and land requirements, among others, underwater datacenters can instead be deployed in 90 days. This is what the company did back in 2018 in Scotland.

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Interestingly, during its tenure in Scotland, the datacenter was also used to perform COVID-19 research for Folding@Home and World Community Grid during testing. Perhaps most importantly, the datacenter ran entirely on wind, solar, and other experimental green energies that are currently under development at the deployment site. This crucially ties in with Microsoft's pledge to go carbon-negative by 2030 before removing all its carbon emissions that it's ever produced from the atmosphere by 2050.

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Talks between Project Natick researchers and Microsoft Azure officials for commercial deployment are already underway. Scaling considerations to power Microsoft Azure services are being discussed together with the prospect of positioning datacenters closer to customers. Since half the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the coast, underwater datacenters could enable a smoother and more stable internet experience in tasks ranging from video streaming to gaming to general web surfing.

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But perhaps these underwater server pods offer much more. Just a few hours back, Google announced that the firm will only tap renewable power by 2030. One of the logistical challenges associated with that move will be to relocate some of its datacenters. With Microsoft's Project Natick providing a potent alternative that promises reliability and deployment speed while operating on renewable energy, we could have a potential solution onboard.

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