Is Microsoft’s underwater data centre the future?
The Natick Phase One vessel was operated on the seafloor, approximately one kilometre off the Pacific coast of the United States, from August to November 2015. Thereafter the Phase Two vessel of Natick, deployed at the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney Islands, United Kingdom, in June 2018, aims to demonstrate that you can economically manufacture full-scale undersea data centre modules and deploy them in under 90 days from decision to power on. Could you give us an insight into what prompted the company to launch Project Natick?
Project Natick reflects Microsoft’s ongoing quest for cloud data centre solutions that offer less resource intensive options, rapid provisioning, lower costs and high agility in meeting customer needs. Essentially, the project is focused on bringing about a cloud future that can help better serve customers in areas that are near large bodies of water, where nearly 50% of society resides. The vision of operating containerised data centres offshore, near major population centres, anticipates a highly interactive future which will require data resources located close to users. Deepwater deployment offers ready access to cooling and a controlled environment and has the potential to be powered by co-located renewable power sources.
From what we understand Natick data centres consume no water for cooling or any other purpose. Could you speak a little bit more about what makes this possible without compromising critical data components?
Seawater flows through heat exchangers within the data centre. The heat exchanger is like a car’s radiator, which uses cool air to cool the hot water flowing through the car’s engine. We’re the same, but we use water to cool air. Very little cooling is due to the walls of the vessel.
Modern building cooling systems, including data centres, use city tap water for cooling. This use of water greatly reduces the electricity required for cooling, but this water use can be significant. Natick puts no pressure on city water supplies and instead uses seawater, which is then returned directly to the ocean, unchanged.
Could you comment on the unique challenges that come with cooling large-scale electronics in this context and how the company addressed them?
Today, each land data centre is subject to local environmental conditions, such as temperature, humidity, particulate matter, building materials and electricity supply, which differ significantly across data centres and across seasons. Natick uses the same computers used to deliver our cloud services from land-based Microsoft data centres today and, as previously mentioned, because Natick data centres provide a sealed environment, we can use a nitrogen atmosphere, with no oxygen and very little water vapour. This reduces problems such as corrosion and allows us to provide the computers with the same operating environment, regardless of where in the world we deploy.
How could subsea data centres contribute to the growing dialogue of optimising resources in operations in a sustainable manner?
The project represents Microsoft’s investigation in the numerous potential benefits that a standard, manufacturable, deployable undersea data centre could provide to cloud users all over the world. If successful, we are on the quest for a future where cloud data centre solutions offer less resource-intensive options, rapid provisioning, lower costs and high agility in meeting customer needs.
Natick requires no footprint on land, which is a significant issue in some locations. Being offshore allows us to bring the cloud close to customers even without this footprint.
Because Natick is more energy efficient, we put less pressure on the electric grid. We are investigating the idea of co-locating Natick with its own locally generated renewable energy. In this kind of configuration, we would be off-grid. The Energy Information Administration says long-distance transmission typically costs 5 per cent of electrical power, so this reduces energy use while eliminating the need for long-distance transmission, including the transformers required in this process.
As noted earlier, Natick uses seawater and, hence, doesn’t require city water. Drinking water is likely the most valuable resource in the 21st century.