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Microsoft’s underwater datacentre: The pros and cons of running subsea facilities

Underwater datacentres can help providers save on land costs and cooling, but at what cost to the environment?

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Microsoft’s underwater datacentre trials have attracted the attention of environmentalists and industry watchers alike, with many questioning the long-term viability and impact of the initiative.

The software giant has created a subsea, self-contained datacentre as part of its ongoing Project Natick research into creating facilities that can help it meet the growing demand for cloud-based services in a sustainable way.

An underwater datacentre is a good way, according to Microsoft, of achieving this as it negates the need for expensive mechanical cooling systems. If – as the company hopes – such facilities can be paired up with hydroelectric power systems, it could also stand to be more environmentally friendly than traditional land-based builds.

The company has also been quick to talk up the latency benefits of offshore datacentres on its Project Natick web page. Here, it states, with half the world’s population living within 200km of an ocean, subsea builds have the potential to significantly cut down data transfer times to user sites.

David Barker, technical director at Surrey-based datacentre and colocation provider 4D, says that, from a latency and logistics perspective, the research Microsoft is doing makes a lot of sense.

“The vast majority of the Earth’s surface is covered with water and all international fibre routes run along the sea bed,” Barker tells Computer Weekly.

“By deploying a datacentre on the sea bed you get around some issues with building a facility on land and at scale, such as having to build away from major metro areas where there is little fibre connectivity to keep land costs low.”

From research to commercial reality

According to a New York Times report into the project, the prototype vessel contained a single, operational datacentre rack that was surrounded in pressurised nitrogen to soak up the heat generated by the IT kit inside.

The report also states that Microsoft has designs on creating another datacentre that will be around three times the size of its first prototype in tandem with a company that specialises in hydroelectric power systems, and that could be trialled as early as 2017.

Despite this, Microsoft has been quick to stress that it is still early days for the research project, and that it is likely to be sometime before other modular, ocean-ready datacentres start rolling off the production line.

The 10ft by 7ft prototype facility was initially sited one kilometre off the Pacific coast of the US between August and November 2015, before being shipped back to Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters so its research team could analyse how it fared.

The company has revealed that it hopes, in time, that similar datacentre builds could be deployed under the sea for up to five years at a time, in line with the average lifespan of the equipment inside.

Effect on marine environment unknown

In light of this, Gary Cook, senior corporate campaigner and IT sector analyst at environmental lobbyists Greenpeace, says more research into the long-term ecological impact of the vessels will be required.

Particularly, he added, as the precise amounts of thermal pollution these types of vessels could give off – and the consequential increase in ambient sea temperature they could cause – is unknown.

Localised increases in sea temperature caused by the output of warm water from power plants, for example, can sometimes have a transformative effect on aquatic creatures and their delicate ecosystems. As such, species can fail to adapt to the changing conditions, causing them to migrate away or die off, whereas other, less prevalent organisms might be better suited and thrive.

“I have not seen any data that indicates how much local heating of the marine environment occurs with these, only the adjectives along the lines of ‘extremely’ small amounts,” Cook tells Computer Weekly.

“Exactly what amount of local heating is to be expected, particularly in aggregate if these pods were deployed in large numbers in close quarters, is something to keep an eye on.  Hopefully Microsoft will make their full findings available soon.”

That aside, Cook says Microsoft’s decision to put sustainability and renewable energy at the forefront of its distributed datacentre plans is a promising development.

“Microsoft deserves credit for exploring this, but I hope they show greater commitment to aggressively marrying existing renewable sources to their rapidly growing Azure infrastructure, as we have recently seen from Google, Apple and Facebook,” Cook adds.

Opportunities for others

If and when the Microsoft vessels do enter full production, Andrew Donoghue, European research manager at IT analyst house 451 Research, says it is unlikely that other players in the datacentre and colocation market will be rushing to follow suit.

“So-called hyper-scale datacentre operators such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Apple have effectively rewritten the rule book on accepted datacentre design in recent times, with the use of containerised datacentres, rack-level fuel cells for power, new IT architectures from the silicon all the way up with initiatives like the Open Compute Project,” he explains to Computer Weekly.

“We won’t see enterprises or colocation datacentre operators adopting underwater facilities anytime soon, but it is possible that Microsoft may decide to move this from a research project to actual commercial deployment for a few specific use cases.”

In Microsoft’s case, these types of builds could act as edge datacentres providing cloud-related internet of things (IoT) services or for hosting smart city applications that rely on low latency connections to datacentre resources, Donoghue continues.

However, there are a number of regulatory, logistical, maintenance and cost challenges that would make it difficult for the majority of datacentre providers to follow Microsoft into the water straightaway.

If Microsoft is able to commercialise the technology, it could become a reality that we have a network of underwater datacentres supporting the cloud services we use every day
David Barker, 4D

“In the short-term, it is only companies with enormous research and development budgets that will be able to take on projects such as this, but if Microsoft is able to commercialise the technology, then it could become a reality that we have a network of underwater datacentres supporting the cloud services we use every day, which is a very interesting and intriguing concept,” says 4D’s Barker.

Indeed, with the furore around Safe Harbour sharpening the minds of many CIOs and tech firms about the legal issues around data sovereignty, Barker says using offshore datacentres could throw up a whole new set of considerations for IT decision makers.

“Deploying a datacentre on the sea bed in international waters does provide some interesting thoughts on data protection and privacy,” he says.

“If the data is held in international waters does copyright law still apply? Is there any regulation or requirements on data security or protection if it is being stored outside of any country’s jurisdiction?”

Underwater maintenance

During the three-month trial, the company used a series of sensors to remotely monitor conditions inside and out of the vessel, in case any maintenance issues cropped up, as it is designed to be unmanned.

Karl Mendez, managing director of CWCS Managed Hosting, tells Computer Weekly this could prove to be a stumbling block for companies that are used to having easy on-site access to their IT assets in the event of a hardware failure.

“An underwater datacentre would be difficult for technical engineers to maintain and access – a potentially devastating problem in the event of a hardware failure – and sea water could erode the equipment over the long-term,” says Mendez.

In a similar vein, Donoghue says finding efficient ways of delivering backup power suppliers to an underwater site is also likely to prove problematic.

“Primary power will probably come from renewables – wave power seems likely or even a connection to a hydroelectric power plant – but it’s not clear what the backup source will be [in these situations]. It could potentially be a grid connection as the datacentres will be deployed close to the shore,” he offers.

Read more about sustainable datacentre builds

This was first published in February 2016

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