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Data centres obviously produce significant amounts of heat when in operation and so thermal management is a vital consideration – but is it a good idea to house a data centre on the sea floor?
Microsoft has been developing the idea of submersed data centres for a few years now having sunk one previously off the coast of California in November 2015. The latest Orkney-based research mission is named Project Natick and is helping to determine whether the natural cooling of the sea can help lower the amount of energy used by the data centre. The experiment saw a shipping container-sized white cylinder lowered into the sea near the Orkney Islands where it will be left for up to five years – as long as everything goes to plan. The prototype involves 12 racks with 864 servers with 27.6 petabytes of storage and can hold the data and process information for up to five years without maintenance.
The data centre is connected to the Orkney power grid where the Islands produce enough renewable energy to power both the islands and data centre before feeding any remaining spare energy back into the Scottish grid. The renewable energy comes from the European Marine Energy Centre's tidal turbines and wave energy converters.
The expected 5-year lifecycle is for the computers contained within the data centre and so once the 5-year cycle is over, the vessel itself can be recycled and reloaded with new computers before being redeployed. The target lifespan of a Natick data centre is 20 years.
Part of the reasoning behind sinking a data centre off the coast is that almost half the world's population lives near large bodies of water. As the usage of the internet continues to increase, having data centres nearer large populations would result in faster and smoother internet connection. As the world’s population also continues to increase, the amount of energy consumed in order to communicate and use the internet also becomes greater. New, innovative ways of not just producing energy but also utilising energy are therefore required in order to satisfy the increasing demands of population growth.
Other than the energy consumption of data centres, another significant problem that Project Natick is helping to solve is the issue of corrosion. Project Natick does not require maintenance crews as everything is controlled remotely. This means that the data centre does not have to be inhabitable for people, thus allowing Microsoft to remove both oxygen and water vapour from the atmosphere and reducing the opportunity for corrosion to take place.
Although it is hoped that the computers within the data centre have a much lower failure rate than land-based computers, it is not actually possible to repair them if they do fail as this phase of the experiment is expected to last 5-years before being recovered from the sea. If Project Natick is a success however, Microsoft is hoping to be able to deploy offshore data centres in just 90-days in the future – significantly less than the time it takes to deploy land-based ones.
For more information, visit http://natick.research.microsoft.com/
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