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Microsoft Heads Underwater with Data Centers

Scott Sherwood
May 16, 2016

What’s in store for the future of data centers?

That depends on who you ask.

For some, the future of data centers looks like sleek hallways and futuristic buildings. For others, it’s more of the same—facilities that look like today’s, but on a grander scale. For others still, though, the future of data centers is more abstract, with facilities buried deep underground or located on the outskirts of the Arctic Circle.

Microsoft, apparently in the “abstract” camp, is trying out something new: underwater data centers.

A New York Times article published earlier this year highlights Microsoft's new data center project, which is code-named Project Natick, is based off of Microsoft researchers' belief that the future of data centers may be underwater. As you can imagine, making a data center work underwater is no small feat.

One of the biggest technical challenges for data center operators to overcome is heat. The computer hardware used in today's data centers is much more efficient than in years past, but is still susceptible to overheating—and still puts out a significant amount of heat when it's running.

Different data centers address the heat problem in different ways. Some contain the server racks in their own units, isolating them from the rest of the building to avoid excess cooling bills. Others run the temperature in their data centers higher, at limits which are safe for hardware but not necessarily comfortable for humans.

With this project, Microsoft hopes it can solve the heat problem by placing the hardware in a data center hundreds of feet below the ocean's surface. As the New York Times notes, Microsoft "is considering pairing the system either with a turbine or a tidal energy system to generate electricity”, which could make the system even more efficient.

What does the system look like? Essentially, it's a giant sealed tube. The New York Times describes it as covered with heat exchangers, with sealed ends secured by metal plates and bolts. The actual hardware is a single data center computing rack bathed in pressurized nitrogen.

The first test was successful, but of course there are many obstacles to widespread underwater data center adoption. Environmental concerns are obviously important, as are technical and connectivity issues. But even with all the obstacles, Microsoft researchers hope that this project could lead to exciting new developments for the data centers of the future.

Whether the data centers of the future will be underwater or not, we can’t say—but in any case, it’s fascinating to see ideas like these being tested. Who knows what other ideas may be in store!

What does the future of data centers look like? We want to hear your thoughts! Send us a message on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn and let us know what you think.

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