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What Are Deep Sea Data Centers and Do They Matter? Featured

What Are Deep Sea Data Centers and Do They Matter? "Graceful jellyfish"

The cloud in cloud computing is an abstract concept that does not mean that servers and storage devices are floating around, hidden in fluffy congregations of water vapor. But while the current computing environment may not incorporate those cumulus clouds floating across the sky, you might be surprised to learn that there is a lot of interest in locating servers deep in the ocean.

The terrestrial data centers that make up the cloud require an incredible amount of electricity for power and millions of gallons of water for cooling the computers and peripheral devices they house. These considerations influence where large cloud data centers are built, as they need access to sufficient energy and water resources. 

One might wonder why anyone would want to put computer servers in the ocean. But when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. The ocean provides an abundant source of renewable energy and, by its very nature, plenty of water for cooling hot equipment. Building on the ocean floor does not require rerouting water resources that might be needed for agriculture or other human endeavors. 

Microsoft has explored the concept of submerged servers since 2015 when it established Project Nantick to research the feasibility of housing data centers on the ocean floor and powering them with offshore renewable energy. The tests were conducted off the coast of Orkney, Scotland at the European Marine Energy Center. 

The company followed up an initial experiment with a second phase which deployed an underwater data center four times larger than phase one with 36 times its computing power. The dimensions of the pressure vehicle containing the servers were a little over 12 meters in length and 3 meters in diameter, about the size of a 40-foot shipping container. Its electrical power consumption was 240 KW, all of which was locally produced by renewable wind, solar, tidal, and wave sources. 

Nantick Phase II consisted of 12 racks containing 864 standard Microsoft data center servers and 27.6 petabytes of disk space. It has the computing power of a combined several thousand consumer PCs and storage space for around five million movies.  

The second phase of project Nantick concluded on July 9th, 2020. What Microsoft learned from its testing has potentially paradigm-shifting ramifications for the construction of future data centers.  

Advantages of Under Sea Data Centers 

Following are some of the advantages that Microsoft’s experiments have demonstrated. 

  • Increased reliability - The use of nitrogen rather than oxygen for the vessel’s atmosphere combined with the absence of people potentially bumping into equipment led to a failure rate of 1/8 that of a land-based control group.  
  • Consumer benefits - Data centers modeled after Nantick can be provisioned in 90 days. They can reduce latency by being located closer to the consumers using them. A large percentage of the world’s population lives near the coastline, making it an attractive audience for deep sea data centers. 
  • Societal benefits - Renewable energy and intelligent manufacturing using recycled and recyclable materials provide a zero-emission and sustainable path for data center construction. 

Microsoft plans to use the knowledge gained from Project Nantick to improve the sustainability of its more traditional data centers. While no commercial product has yet to be announced, the future of deep sea data centers looks promising for the benefits they can provide consumers and society. 

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 Robert Agar

I am a freelance writer who graduated from Pace University in New York with a Computer Science degree in 1992. Over the course of a long IT career I have worked for a number of large service providers in a variety of roles revolving around data storage and protection. I currently reside in northeastern Pennsylvania where I write from my home office.

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