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Evaluating Data Center Trends: What Are Underwater Data Centers?

May 10, 2017

Evaluating Data Center Trends: What Are Underwater Data Centers?

Innovation is constantly shaping the data center, even in areas where everything seems to have been tried before. Power is one of the biggest operating expenses for any data center, and a good portion of that energy goes to powering the chillers needed to cool the server room. CIOs and data center managers have tried everything to cut their cooling costs, from building data centers in mountain climates to using water cooling for high-density equipment racks. Now Microsoft has introduced something totally new, an underwater data center.  

When you consider the total cost of data center ownership, energy consumption is a big-ticket item. Servers and actual data center hardware account for about 55 percent of total energy use, followed by another 30 percent for cooling equipment. If you can cut the cost of cooling, you can realize substantial savings on your operating budget. There are two ways to cut cooling costs: 1) increase the operating temperature of the data center and 2) make cooling more efficient. You can’t make conventional chillers operate much more efficiently than they do now, so more data center operators are experimenting with new cooling techniques, such as water cooling.

Just Add Water

Water and computing equipment don’t logically go together, but more companies are experimenting with water cooling techniques for data center hardware.

Water-cooled equipment racks are one approach. Companies like Motivair and CoolIT Systems have developed water-cooled server racks that remove heat using circulating water that can be temperature-controlled. Nautilus Data Technologies has gone one step further by creating a floating data center that uses seawater for equipment cooling. The Nautilus approach doesn’t require cooling towers, chillers or air handlers. Instead, water is taken directly from the ocean beneath the floating data center, run through the data center rack to cool the equipment and then run through a heat exchanger to cool the water before returning it to the ocean.

Water seems to be the best natural coolant for many applications, including data centers, so Microsoft has taken the water cooling to the next level with a submersible data center.

Total Data Center Immersion

Microsoft has been working on Project Natick since 2013. The concept was conceived by one of the Microsoft data center team members who had experience as a Navy submariner. Because more than half of the planet lives near the ocean, why not place data centers offshore and use the ocean as a naturally cool habitat for data centers? The idea was to create a submersible data center that was environmentally responsible and cost-effective.

Developing an underwater data center requires a design that is totally self-sufficient and connected to land via an underwater fiber cable. Once the capsule is submerged, you want it to operate unattended for as long as possible, because sending down a repair crew is impractical. Microsoft wants to ultimately create an underwater data center that can run for years without repairs or human intervention. The cost savings come from reduced power consumption, reduced cooling demands and the fact that no personnel are required for routine maintenance.

The prototype was an eight-foot-wide steel capsule designed to be self-sufficient and to operate for long periods of time. Christened the Leona Philpot, after a character from the Halo video game, the prototype data center ran continuously for 105 days off the coast of San Luis Obispo, California, exceeding the designers’ expectations.

The Leona Philpot was equipped with a single computing rack in a pressurized container that was filled with nitrogen for better cooling. Sensors were installed inside and outside, and conditions were monitored for humidity, pressure and motion, but also for any potential impact on the environment. The noise generated was minimal, and heat only affected water a few inches from the capsule.

According to Microsoft, there are multiple advantages to using an underwater data center. Not only is the operating environment cooler, but the data center can be provisioned quickly anywhere that there is a body of water. The company says it can mass-produce and provision a data center capsule within 90 days, as opposed to the two years it typically takes to build a land-based data center. It’s the ideal solution when extra data processing capacity is needed for special projects. And the company is working on the longevity of the underwater data center, predicting that one day it may even generate its own power with underwater turbines or tidal power.

With the anticipated demand for more and faster data processing with the arrival of big data and the Internet of Things, data center demand is booming. Microsoft already manages more than 100 data centers around the world and has spent more than $15 billion on a global data center infrastructure. By adding underwater data centers to the mix, Microsoft will be able to expand its computing capacity and substantially reduce operating costs. Clearly, the company has found a new way to take advantage of liquid assets.