Microsoft’s Underwater Data Center Has a Serious Flaw

Server arrays underwater with bubbles floating past

Posted on Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The quest for more environmentally-friendly data centers has taken an unusual twist with Microsoft’s Project Natick. This particular research project’s purpose is “to determine the feasibility of sub-sea data centers powered by offshore renewable energy.”

What does that look like?

According to Microsoft’s marketing materials, 50% of people live near the coast. The official website then goes on to ask why our data doesn’t live near the coast. Project Natick has two key goals:

  • To test whether it is possible to power a complete data center using nothing but renewable energy.
  • To assess whether the surrounding sea water provides adequate cooling for the systems in the data center. 

To test these factors, Microsoft has submerged a small, sealed, 12-rack data center into the sea off the coast of Scotland. According to the project team, all 864 servers are planned to run for five years without maintenance.

But there’s a problem

When the Natick project says their data center is sealed, they mean really sealed. The unit does not have an airlock, so the only way to access the servers is to resurface the whole data center- somewhat costly for a failed disk array.

And it is this inaccessibility which raises questions about the whole Natick data center. Yes, we may learn a little more about renewable energy use and latent data center cooling– but are the results even remotely practical?

The truth is that data center hardware fails regularly– that’s just the nature of electronic devices. Were this setup to be replicated in the real world, you would need to either design a way to access the servers or include a vast amount of redundancy to cope with failures as they occur.

The future may be undersea– but it won’t be Natick

For the CTO, Natick’s headline findings will be interesting. But the rate of undersea hardware failure could be of far more interest in the long term. And if Microsoft are serious about underwater data centers, they will need to find a workable solution to the issue of access first. 

In the meantime, CDS is on hand to assist with real-world hardware failures in your on-land disk arrays. Give us a call to learn more.

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