It is no surprise that Microsoft has chosen the waters off Orkney, Scotland as a test bed for Project Natick. 'The Great Harbour' of Scapa Flow is a natural maritime haven with sheltered temperate waters.
Project Natick was conceived in 2013 when Microsoft employee Sean James - a former US submariner - submitted a ThinkWeek Paper. Microsoft considered his idea and decided to explore the concept of placing computers and datacentres in water.
Why put computers underwater?
Anyone who has ever been in a server room will understand why Microsoft is exploring alternative methods of cooling computers. Computers can kick out a lot of heat, and significant power is used to keep systems cool. Some companies have opted to create server farms in cold(er) countries to save on energy bills. Microsoft has chosen to experiment with the ocean.
Water is an effective heat conductor
As divers we have first hand knowledge at just how effective water can be at cooling. (Water conducts heat away from the body 20 times more efficiently than air, hence we wear thermal protection to keep us warm whilst diving). It is therefore logical to harness the power of the sea to keep computer systems cool.
Project Natick has been devised to understand the benefits and difficulties in deploying subsea datacenters worldwide. It is hoped that the Scapa Flow system will help answer the question "Is it possible to save energy by using water as a cooling mechanism?"
Galapagos is a fascinating area to dive because the islands sit at a crossroads where seven major cold and warm oceanic currents collide encouraging an unusual mix of tropical and temperate water fish.
The impact that the submerged data centre will have on the surrounding Scottish seabed and water has the potential to be an interesting research project. Although Scapa is sheltered, it is tidal, so there could be a temperature increase in the ambient water around the data centre. A physics / maths researcher would certainly have some fun modelling the temperature changes. And are we likely to see some coral and marine life species specifically attracted to the data centre site over the next five years?
Unfortunately you need quite a bit of energy to heat water. A rough back of a fag packet calculation (a quick calculation without detailed analysis or research) indicates that if the water is moving past the Microsoft vessel, the water temperature will rise by less than a tenth of one degree. If the water is completely stationary, then it would take about 22 minutes to raise the temperature by one degree. This won't happen though because the warm water will move upwards. So the idea of donning a bikini to dive Scapa is a long way off. The effects will be negligible. That said, marine biologists may find something interesting if they monitor the small nooks, cranies and crevices of the Microsoft vessel, perhaps a new bacteria?
Microsoft have confirmed that their underwater data centre will be powered by locally produced renewable electricity from on-shore wind and solar farms and off-shore tide and wave devices.
- 12 racks containing 864 standard Microsoft datacenter servers with FPGA acceleration and 27.6 petabytes of disk
- The system has enough storage for about 5 million films
- The Microsoft vessel is 12.2mt / 40ft long and 3.18 mt / 10.4 ft diameter
- Internal operating pressure: 1 bar
- Up to five years of planned operation without maintenance