09 Mar 2016

Microsoft trials underwater data centre.

Microsoft has become the first company to test whether a data centre can be located underwater.

The company recently revealed some early results from Project Natick, which saw a 17,000kg pod of compute sit in nine metres of water in a Californian harbour for 105 days.

“The knowledge gained from the three months this vessel was underwater could help make future data centres more sustainable,” Microsoft said.

“And yes, maybe even someday, data centres could become commonplace in seas around the world.”

Microsoft believes there could be several potential advantages for putting its data centres underwater.

It could potentially harness tidal energy to power the servers and IT gear, and use sea water to cool the equipment.

The company could also drop facilities closer to coastal communities, “closing the distance to connected populations” by reducing latency.

In addition, it is envisaged that the subsea data centres could be deployed a lot faster than traditional land-based facilities.

Microsoft said that the housing for its experimental underwater data centre took about 90 days to build.

“While every data centre on land is different and needs to be tailored to varying environments and terrains, these underwater containers could be mass produced for very similar conditions underwater,” the firm said.

That could make it easier for a company like Microsoft to broaden the reach of its cloud and cloud-hosted software, and improve the experience of the people that connect in to it.

Unlike a land-based data centre however, the gear isn’t readily accessible. A diver was sent down to examine the facility once a month, but otherwise it was operated in a completely remote fashion.

Microsoft said it is still analysing the results of its experiment but claimed the results are “promising”.

“This is speculative technology, in the sense that if it turns out to be a good idea, it will instantly change the economics of this business,” Microsoft Research special projects managing director and distinguished scientist Norm Whitaker said.

While others have toyed with the idea of ocean-going data centres, to date the proposals have been to build floating compute facilities.

Google notably patented several floating data centre designs that could take advantage of tidal power for electricity and sea temperatures for cooling.

It was widely speculated to have prototyped a barge-based data centre in 2013 – since disproved. A start-up, Nautilus Data Technologies, is also circling the barge data centre space.

PHOTO: Divers check on the Microsoft prototype data centre monthly. (Supplied: Microsoft)