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Mar. 3, 2016: IEEE Computing Now

Microsoft Tests Underwater Data Center for More Efficient Cooling

by Rachel Gordon

Microsoft has tested a prototype of a self-contained data center that can operate below the surface of the ocean to reduce the need for expensive air-conditioning.

Data centers contain thousands of computer servers generating heat. When the data centers get too hot, the servers crash. Thermal management is becoming an increasing important and expensive part of industrial and enterprise computing. Microsoft believe that putting servers under cold ocean water could cool the data centers without air-conditioning. Being heavily reliant on passive cooling means interfaces must allow excellent thermal conduction away from heat sources to the environment.

This solution could also address the exponentially growing energy demands of computing. Microsoft is considering harvesting electricity, by including either a turbine or a tidal energy system to generate electricity. For years, cloud computing providers have been seeking sites where they can take advantage of the surrounding environment.

Demand for centralized computing is growing exponentially. Microsoft manages more than 100 data centers around the globe and is adding more rapidly, spending over $15 billion on a global data center network. In 2014, engineers in NeXT at Microsoft Research began thinking about accelerating the process of adding new computing power to cloud computing systems. Using these underwater capsules, it may be possible to shorten the deployment time to 90 days, offering huge cost advantage and more flexibility.

Microsoft produced a large, white, steel tube, eight feet in diameter, covered with heat exchangers, containing a single data center computing rack, bathed in pressurized nitrogen to efficiently remove heat. Strands of these giant steel tubes could be linked by fiber optic cables placed on the seafloor, or suspended beneath the surface.

The company also recently completed a 105-day trial of the steel capsule 30 feet underwater off the Central California coast. The trial proved more successful than expected, even running commercial data-processing projects.

The new capsules are designed to be left without maintenance for five years. That means the servers, including all the interface materials and adhesives, have to last five years without repairs. That's longer than is currently expected of these materials. Servers are put in racks so they can be maintained. Without maintenance, it may be possible to reorient them in a more efficient way.

The underwater server containers could also help make web services work faster. Much of the world's population now lives close to oceans. Data centers are usually built in rural locations where land is cheap. The ability to place computing power nearer to users lowers the latency.

The researchers had worried about unforeseen technical issues, such as hardware failures and leaks. The underwater system was outfitted with 100 different sensors, including pressure, humidity, and motion, to better understand operating underwater.

The research group has started designing a system that will be three times larger. It may incorporate an ocean-based alternative-energy system. The Microsoft engineers said they expected a new trial to begin next year, possibly near Florida or in Northern Europe, where there are already extensive ocean energy projects underway.

Learn more at the IDTechEx Show! in Berlin, April 27-28.

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