Microsoft has filed a patent application for an underwater Artificial Reef Datacenter. The patent details deploying an entire server farm underwater that is enclosed by a permanent surrounding structure which doubles as an artificial reef. The patent has several provisions to promote marine life occupancy. Microsoft plans to use sustainable energy to power the data center while using seawater to naturally cool the space.
Microsoft has been working on Project Natick since 2015. Because over half of the world’s population lives within 200 km of the ocean, Microsoft devised the project to decrease latency while having ready access to natural data center cooling, a controlled environment, and renewable data center power sources.
When the project began, Microsoft planned to have the enclosure of their underwater data center experiment act as a reef for marine life to inhabit.
Using the results of Project Natick, Microsoft has filed a patent for an Artificial Reef Datacenter and the company has big plans for the future.
Project Natick began in 2015 by enclosing a single rack of standard servers in a 10 x 7-foot cylindrical steel shell pod.
The pod was constructed with a cooling system that uses a heat exchanger to transfer heat to the naturally cold ocean water, thus providing free underwater data center cooling to the IT equipment.
The pod was powered by the land-based power grid during the 2015 deployment.
The pod was lowered 30 feet deep into the Pacific Ocean where it operated for 105 days from August through November, and was retrieved and tested in December. None of the hardware failed during the time underwater and the cooling system performed more efficiently than expected.
With the success of the first deployment, Microsoft plans to construct a second structure that is the size of a shipping container on the ocean floor as the second phase to Project Natick.
The Artificial Reef Datacenter Patent
The Artificial Reef Datacenter patent includes several provisions for constructing full-scale submerged data centers and encouraging marine life to inhabit the reef structure.
The permanent outer structure of the artificial reef provides the same spaces for marine life to hide from predators that a natural coral reef would provide.
The heat exchanger design provides warmth for sea life without causing a disturbing heat differential, which would create a micro-climate and could potentially give some species of marine life an advantage over other species.
The pod design minimizes acoustic energy within the structure from affecting marine life inhabitation of the reef.
The patent accommodates any type of sea floor terrain. Some structures can rest on an even sea floor while other structures can float about rough and uneven terrain with anchors that differ in length allowing the data center to float level.
The patent is not limited to oceans; it includes submerging data centers in rivers, lakes, and even flooded rock quarries.
The Future Plan
Microsoft envisions 20kW data centers to be submerged in artificial reefs in the future. The permanent outer structure will have an access point to install and retrieve the server room pods.
The company plans to build pods out of fully recycled material that can be deployed up to 20 years. The plan is to deploy them for 5 years, which is the lifespan of the IT equipment contained within, and then retrieve them to do a tech refresh. Once the 20 lifespan is finished, the data center will be retrieved and completely recycled again.
Microsoft plans to perfect its heat exchanger to make it less attractive to plants and animals.
While Project Natick has utilized the land-based power grid up until now, the plan is to power future data centers with renewable marine energy sources. Microsoft wants to use turbines to leverage tidal energy. Because tidal energy is not available at different points during the day, the company plans to also use wind energy to power the data center, which will be generated by offshore windmills.
Given the patent and Microsoft’s success thus far, if Project Natick graduates from the experimentation stage to production, it could provide an enormous shift in the way the data center industry operates.