The idea seems crazy on the surface. Software and cloud giant Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) built an encapsulated data center, only to send it to the bottom of the ocean floor where it will (hopefully) remain operational for several years before needing any maintenance. What a misguided use of time and resources.
As it turns out, though, there’s a brilliant method to the madness. By sending the waterproof rack of servers into the deep, the company solves a couple of the key problems faced by more conventional data centers.
One of them is simply that the surrounding water naturally cools the hardware in use. The second is that underwater data centers make it much easier — and faster — to connect coastal areas to the world wide web.
This may well be the shape of things to come.
Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN), you might want to take notes. And Alphabet Inc (NASDAQ:GOOGL, NASDAQ:GOOG), this is something to put in your back pocket as well. Since you both operate your own data centers, copying the idea in one way or another could bear fruit for you, too.
This is the second wave of Project Natick. The first go-around was a couple of years ago, when Microsoft Corporation dropped a data center into the water just off the coast of California — near San Luis Obispo — as part of a shorter-term “proof of concept” test.
That test went well enough to move into phase two of Project Natick, which involved the submersion of 864 servers in waters near the Orkney Islands in Scotland.
The focal point of this test is to determine if the “concept is logistically, environmentally and economically practical.” If all goes as hoped, the 40-foot long enclosure will remain operational underwater for as long as five years.
There’s a method to the madness.
Two Birds, One Stone for Microsoft
As was noted, data centers generate tremendous amounts of heat. They can be cooled with traditional air conditioning, but doing so is a monster-sized task that’s not only expensive, but ultimately harmful to the environment. Submerged in cool waters, heat is dissipated via the water, creating no carbon emissions and incurring no cost.
There’s another upside to such an apparatus though — two, actually.
One of them is the accessibility of renewable energy that’s often unique to coastal areas. The Orkney Islands are powered by wind turbines, which create more electricity than they actually need.
Placing the server racks underwater there allows them to be powered without adding to the earth’s carbon footprint. Future server banks could be powered by ocean turbines, capturing the power of sea currents, which also wouldn’t create new carbon emissions.
The other upside is that setting up land-based data centers near major cities is logistically tough, and expensive. Setting up data centers just off the coast, though, allows for high-speed connections to a company’s servers, reducing lag time and improving service (whatever that service may be).
More than half the people on the planet live within 120 miles of a coastline. Server racks just off the nearby coast could cut latency — the time it takes for data to travel from a data center to a user’s device — into a fraction of its current delay.
The Last Word
For the record, this isn’t actually the first time a company has thought outside the box to combat the often-overlooked problem of the “Big Data” and cloud era.
Google uses seawater to cool its data center in Finland, while Facebook, Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) erected a data center in Lulea, Sweden — in the Arctic Circle — to capitalize on its cold climate. To keep those servers cool, Facebook simply pipes in the area’s naturally cold outside air.
The solution Microsoft has come up with, however, appears to be the most practical, flexible and accessible.
Microsoft says it could deploy one of the submerged data centers anywhere in the world in as little as 90 days. The micro-scale nature of the idea rather than macro-scale type of projects other companies are taking on may actually be the more cost-effective use of time and resources.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.