Microsoft's underwater data centers prove reliable and practical

When Microsoft first announced it would place data centers underwater, it seemed like a bizarre idea. Microsoft is giving an update on its underwater Northern Isles datacenter placed inside a watertight shipping-container-size enclosure and has spent its time under 117 feet of water since being deployed in the spring of 2018. Over the last two years, Microsoft's team has tested and monitored the data center's performance and reliability.

This summer, Microsoft had marine specialists pull the data center out of the water, covered in algae, barnacles, and sea anemones. The retrieval marked the final phase of a multiyear effort to prove the concept of underwater data centers is feasible logistically, environmentally, and economically. The project started as a hypothesis that a sealed container on the ocean floor could improve the overall reliability of a data center.

Data centers located in traditional buildings on the ground are subject to fluctuations due to temperature, vibrations, and impacts resulting from people replacing broken components, and temperature fluctuations. The typical data center requires significant electrical resources to keep the area cool and the computer systems operating reliably.

Underwater data centers have proven reliable and have reportedly prompted discussions with a Microsoft Azure team looking to serve customer's needs to deploy and operate critical data centers worldwide. Microsoft notes that more than half the world's population lives within 120 miles of the coast. Placing underwater data centers near coastal cities allows the data to travel a short distance leading to faster and smoother video playback, web surfing, and gaming.

The consistent cooler temperature under the water also allows data centers to be designed more energy efficiently. The data centers use a heat-exchange plumbing system similar to that used on submarines. Microsoft's personnel also noted that they were surprised at how clean the data center was when retrieved from the bottom of the ocean. While encrusted with "sea scum," it lacked a lot of hardened marine growth. Samples of the environment inside the container, which was filled with dry nitrogen, were taken to be sent to the lab along with components, failed servers, and related cables.