The Raritan Blog

An Underwater Data Center: Gimmick or Look Towards the Future?

Jessica Ciesla
November 9, 2018

When you think of a data center, you often think of a nondescript warehouse that is sporting row upon row of computers. Giant air conditioning units and top-notch security complete the picture. But for one of the biggest names in the game, Microsoft, a traditional data center is not enough of an innovative leap. The company recently decided to sink a data center inside of a bus sized cylinder off Scotland's northern coast. While this might sound a bit ridiculous, the new underwater server farm (as it is currently being called) is in fact a real look towards a potential future for data centers.

What Is the New Underwater Server Farm?

Microsoft first tested the idea of underwater data centers with Project Natick in 2015. The reason behind the test stemmed from a brilliant business question, namely, "if approximately 50 percent of the global population lives near the coast, why are the majority of data centers located so far from the water?" During Phase 1 of Project Natick, Microsoft began to explore if it was even possible to operate a data center underwater. The answer was an emphatic "yes," as they successfully launched a vessel into the Pacific Ocean for four months.

Now, during Phase 2, Microsoft hopes to expand its underwater data center capabilities. The server farm is located near the Orkney Islands. Currently, there are 12 racks inside of the submerged data center. The goal of Phase 2 is to see if the self-contained data center can not only survive approximately 117 feet below the water's surface, but if it can operate at full capacity without needing to be pulled out of the water for maintenance fixes. 

Additionally, the goal is to see if the data center can use seawater to effectively cool the 864 servers. The center is connected via a fiber optic cable to gain access to the power it needs and if all goes according to plan, the server farm will remain operational for the next several years. Finally, with the help of the renewable resources used in the Orkney Islands, Microsoft hopes that the Natick Project can be run off entirely renewable energy. 

Are There Advantages to Putting a Data Center Below the Water? 

Speaking of renewable resources, Microsoft is using data gathered in Phase 2 to create future underwater data centers that will run off their own submerged generators. In the future, these generators will run off either electricity that is powered by the wind and / or by harnessing the power of tidal energy. If the latter two energy-generating solutions are achieved, then the only other resource that Natick vessels will need is an underwater cable to connect them to the Internet. Inevitably the potential for a "green data center" that has a reduced carbon footprint is one of the primary motivators for Microsoft to continue its exploration into underwater server farms.

What Does the Future Look Like for Data Centers? 

Time will tell if Phase 2 is a success. Time will also tell if Microsoft will be able to prove that the potential environmental benefits, as well as the ability to house data centers closer to the populations that they serve, will propel others to make the leap towards underwater data centers. However, when the cost of creating a data center remains high, Microsoft's lofty goals to deploy a Project Natick data center in as little as 90 days might just be a solution that coastal customers will jump at. No matter whether data centers remain above ground, or take a trip to the bottom of the ocean floor, one thing is certain ... the right data monitoring and power distribution tools, such as Raritan Intelligent PDUs, are needed to ensure operational security and efficiency. In fact, remote monitoring tools might just be the linchpin needed for making mass produced underwater data centers a reality. 

Learn more about Raritan's Intelligent PDUs here