27 September 2023

Sinking servers: How the cloud could be relocating underwater

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Peter Bright* says Microsoft has been experimenting with underwater server farms, which are proving to be easily deployed, convenient and effective.

Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella says underwater server farms are part of the company’s plans for future data centres.

Microsoft has been experimenting with underwater servers for some time.

Project Natick put a server pod underwater off the coast of California in 2016.

Naturally enough, the pod uses water cooling, dumping waste heat into the ocean around it.

It’s designed as a sealed unit, deployed for five years before being brought back up to the surface and replaced.

Since then, Microsoft has deployed a larger pod off the coast of Scotland.

Speaking at the company’s recent Future Decoded Conference in London, Nadella said that undersea deployments are the way Microsoft will think about data centre regions and expansion.

He cites proximity to humans as a particular advantage: about 50 per cent of the world’s population lives within 200 km of the coast.

Putting servers in the ocean means they can be near population centres, which in turn ensures lower latencies.

Low latencies are particularly important for real-time services, including Microsoft’s forthcoming Xcloud game streaming service.

The other big advantage Nadella cited is the speed at which servers can be deployed this way.

Without the need to build an actual data centre, he said that from start to finish the Scottish pod took just 90 days to build and deploy.

This shorter time to market means the company can be reactive, adding extra server capacity near to where it’s needed on demand.

This is in contrast to land-based data centres, where the company has to guess what future demand will be and hence how big a site is required.

The Scottish deployment is wind powered, taking its power from the Orkney Islands and their 100 per cent renewable generation.

As the cost of offshore wind generation continues to fall, one could even imagine that offshore data centres could be paired with offshore wind farms.

* Peter Bright is Technology Editor at Ars Technica. He tweets at @drpizza.

This article first appeared at arstechnica.com.

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