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Energy

250: Offshore computer server

Problem:

Cooling is one of the biggest costs of running a data center and keeping computers from overheating, particularly on a large scale.

Solution:

Microsoft’s Project Natick involves lowering a hyperscale data center down to the cold depths of the sea and pumping cold seawater through to keep it cool.


From 2015, Phase 1 of Microsoft’s project saw a 10 ft (3 m) long prototype submerged off the coast of California for 105 days, which proved the feasibility of the concept. Phase 2 was designed to test if the idea was practical in a logistical, environmental and economic sense.

Microsoft partnered with a French marine manufacturing company called Naval Group, which designed the watertight cylindrical shell and adapted a commonly-used submarine cooling system to work with the data center. Positioned offshore from Orkney the new facility, known as the Northern Isles data center sits 117 ft (36 m) below the waves, and measures 40 ft (12 m) long. It houses 12 racks with 864 servers and 27.6 petabytes (27,600 terabytes) of storage, enough to store at least 5 million copies of Finding Nemo.

To cool them, seawater is piped through the radiators on the backs of the server racks, before being released back out into the ocean. The center is connected to the world through a fiber optic cable and gets most of its power from the nearby Orkney Islands. Interestingly, 100 % of the region’s energy already comes from renewable sources, thanks to wind turbines, solar panels and more experimental sources such as tidal turbines and wave energy converters.

The eventual goal of Project Natick is to have these underwater data centers be completely self-sustained, powered entirely through offshore wind, wave or tidal generators. In doing so, they could essentially be submerged near any coastal city where they are needed, and supply faster internet and cloud services.

This phase of Project Natick will see the team monitoring the Northern Isles data center for the next 12 months, keeping watch over its performance, power consumption, sound, humidity and temperature.

This version is designed to work continuously down there for up to five years without needing maintenance. Project Natick has been criticized because, using the ocean as a heat exchange to reduce energy used to cool data centres, could be construed as conflicting with environmental objectives,particularly as the global energy consumption of data centres is due to expand from its current 3% to about 14% by 2050.

Other companies have also built facilities in cold locations such as the Arctic Circle or beneath the fjords of Norway.

Discover Solution 251: “Proton”, single-cell protein from CO2

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