Future of the Cloud Lies Beneath the Waves, says Microsoft
Nadia Krieger posted on November 19, 2018 |
Whereas the water lowers latency and provides a natural cooling solution, environmentalists are conc...
Dubbed Leona Philpot after a character in a Halo video game, the first underwater data center was submerged by Microsoft off the coast of California in 2016. (Image courtesy of thenewstack.io.)
Dubbed Leona Philpot after a character in a Halo video game, the first underwater data center was submerged by Microsoft off the coast of California in 2016. (Image courtesy of thenewstack.io.)

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has revealed that the company plans to increase the number of underwater data servers. The announcement was made at the Microsoft Future Decoded conference in London, UK, reports Ars Technica. According to those present at the conference, Microsoft believes that the underwater data centers could play a big part in the future of Microsoft Azure, the company’s global cloud platform.

So far, Microsoft has two data centers beneath the waves: one near California, another off the coast in Scotland.

There’s no doubt that back in 2016, the plan to build underwater servers was first dismissed by some as being at least a little kooky. Despite this skepticism, it turns out there is actually method to the madness. First and foremost, ocean water provides a natural and virtually boundless cooling solution for the servers. Normally, keeping servers cool is a factor of enormous cost for any server farm—in the U.S. alone, these farms use up energy equivalent to 34 coal-fired power plants. Another expensive resource is space—server farms take up no small amount of land and often are built in cheaper areas, which are also farther away from people.

It’s easy to see how dropping servers in the sea provides an easy solution to both of these problems. As it turns out, almost half of the world’s population lives within 62 miles (100 kilometers) of the sea. Putting the servers in the water near urban centres decreases cost and brings low latency to all—assuming that waterproofing the pod doesn’t immediately eat up the rest of the budget.

"Since 50 percent of the world's population lives close to water bodies, we think this is the way we want to think about future data center regions and expansion," Nadella announced to the conference.

Microsoft further believes that the underwater units can be built and deployed much faster than the above-ground servers can. Theoretically, tidal power can be used to provide renewable power for the aquatic cloud, although this has yet to be put into practice. Currently, the Scottish version—“Project Natick”—is powered by wind energy. Project Natick also contains no less than 27.6 petabytes of data storage space.

Despite the seemingly abundant environmental benefits, not everyone is as enthusiastic as Microsoft. The company has received some criticism from environmentalists. Energy consumption caused by the internet is on the rise, and could grow to significantly affect global climate change—for the worse. According to experts, dumping heat waste into the ocean can cause the temperature of the water to rise, leading to as-of-yet unknown effects.

“Running on servers at the edge of the wireless network significantly reduces the amount of pressure on networks caused by applications and data transactions,” says George Adams, director of energy & engineering at SPIE UK, concerning the Scottish data center. “However, given huge international concern about the rising temperature of the oceans and the wider implications for the environment, using the ocean as a heat exchange to reduce energy used to cool data centres, could be construed as conflicting with environmental objectives.”

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