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Microsoft reports on undersea data centre trials

03 February 2016

For the past three months Microsoft has been trialling an underwater vessel that might make future data centres more sustainable and data transmission faster.

The technology to put sealed vessels underwater with computers inside isn’t new. In fact, it was one Microsoft employee’s experience serving on submarines that carry sophisticated equipment that got the ball rolling on this project.

But Microsoft researchers do believe this is the first time a data centre has been deployed below the ocean’s surface. Going under water could solve several problems by introducing a new power source (wave or tidal power), greatly reducing cooling costs, closing the distance to connected populations and making it easier and faster to set up data centres.

Data centres are the backbone of cloud computing; when they are closer to where people live and work, latency is less of a problem, and with more and more organisations relying on the cloud, the demand for data centres is growing – as is the cost to build and maintain them.

The Microsoft team sought a simple place to house their data centre that would be compact and completely self-sustaining. Drawing from the submarine example, they chose a round container for a variety of reasons, not least because it’s the best shape for resisting pressure.

With the vessel sited in an offshore environment, getting power to it posed a problem. However, it raised an entirely new possibility: using the hydro-kinetic energy from waves or tides to power the computers inside.

Cooling is another important consideration - a costly requirement involving chiller plants and the like. The cold environment of the deep seas automatically makes subsea data centres less costly to cool, and therefore more energy efficient.

The team is currently planning the project’s next phase, which could include a vessel four times the size of the current container with as much as 20 times the computing power. The team is also evaluating test sites for the vessel, which could be in the water for at least a year, deployed with a renewable ocean energy source.

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