Over the last week or so, various news outlets have been talking about Microsoft Research’s Project Natick, which is testing data center capsules submerged under the ocean. It’s a fascinating experiment, and one which makes me wonder just how much Microsoft wants to be Google. Is it one likely to shake things up?
Ok, so the main benefit to an undersea data center is that cooling is easy. All you have to do is run some pipes out into the endless heat sink that is the ocean and pump some coolant through them, and you’ve got instant chills. You still have to run power down there to power the servers themselves, but you’ll need less of it and therefore emit less carbon dioxide as a whole as well.
Yet, the list of things you trade away for that cooling benefit is pretty extensive. Accessing the facility is more than merely inconvenient, which is why they’re designing them to go 5 years at a time to even swap out servers. Bringing and maintaining fiber routes in can’t be much fun either, considering how important it is for modern data centers to have multiple points of entry and diverse fiber routes and such. And let’s not even talk about UPS or backup power generators, right? When something goes wrong, forget a truck roll, you’ve got to send a cable ship and scuba divers.
As an environmentalist, it sounds awesome. As an engineer, it sounds like a Dilbert-esque list of headaches the powerpoint forgot to mention. But hashing out the details is what experiments like this are about, so I commend Microsoft for giving it a whirl despite my skepticism.
Another interesting take, though, came from the independent submarine cable protagonist Sunil Tagare, who posts his thoughts on LinkedIn’s platform these days. He suggests the real motivation would be not the energy benefits, but rather the ability to locate data centers (and therefore the data) in international waters, beyond the reach of those pesky national governments.
I’m not sure sinking it beneath the waves would insulate the content the way he thinks they might. However, a giant underwater data center complex built out of lego-like modules beyond the reach of legal systems and, well, mortal humans without double-O status, would make a backdrop for an utterly awesome James Bond film. I can feel Hollywood writing the script already.
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