Microsoft Sinks a Datacenter Off Scotland

It's cool down there.

Project Natick Underwater Datacenter
Project Natick Underwater Datacenter.

 Used with permission from Microsoft

As noted earlier, I have committed to trying to live a 1.5° lifestyle, which means limiting my annual carbon footprint to the equivalent of 2.5 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, the maximum average emissions per capita based on IPCC research. That works out to 6.85 kilograms per day.

Two years ago, Microsoft sank a shipping container-sized data center with 864 servers and 27.6 petabytes of storage in 117 feet of water off Scotland's Orkney Islands. They just reeled it back in, proving that the concept of underwater datacenters is feasible and practical. According to John Roach of Microsoft,

"Lessons learned from Project Natick are already informing conversations about how to make datacenters use energy more sustainably, according to the researchers. For example, the Project Natick team selected the Orkney Islands for the Northern Isles deployment in part because the grid there is supplied 100% by wind and solar as well as experimental green energy technologies under development at the European Marine Energy Centre."

Picking up Data Center
Picking up Data Center.  Used with permission from Microsoft

But a really important feature of this is that cooling is essentially free, and Scotland is surrounded by wind farms, so the power used is 100% carbon-free.

"[Project Manager] Cutler is already thinking of scenarios such as co-locating an underwater datacenter with an offshore windfarm. Even in light winds, there would likely be enough power for the datacenter. As a last resort, a powerline from shore could be bundled with the fiber optic cabling needed to transport data. Other sustainability related benefits may include eliminating the need to use replacement parts. In a lights-out datacenter, all servers would be swapped out about once every five years. The high reliability of the servers means that the few that fail early are simply taken offline."

A Much Lower Carbon Footprint for a 1.5 Degree Lifestyle

All nice and clean
Data center is all nice and clean.  Used with permission from Microsoft

This project is part of a remarkable trend – the constant reduction in the carbon footprint of data. When I started measuring every aspect of my carbon footprint a few months ago, one of the biggest items on my spreadsheet was my use of the Internet, given that I am on my computer either working or reading just about every waking hour. But over the last decade, as streaming video, gaming, and now Zooming vastly increased demand, the server farms have been following a Moore's-Law like increase in efficiency and reduction in energy per gigabyte handled.

Apple, Google, and Microsoft all claim to be carbon-neutral, and Amazon claims to be 50% there. In terms of the carbon footprint of each gigabyte, I was off by a power of ten, going from an estimate of 123 grams per GB down to somewhere between six and 20. But projects like this show that it could soon go even lower.

Opening the end of the data center
Opening the end of the data center. Used with permission from Microsoft 

Microsoft is demonstrating that they can sink a datacenter in cool water in the middle of a wind farm with servers that last far longer than they do on land. They are still trying to figure out why:

The team hypothesizes that the atmosphere of nitrogen, which is less corrosive than oxygen, and the absence of people to bump and jostle components, are the primary reasons for the difference. If the analysis proves this correct, the team may be able to translate the findings to land datacenters. “Our failure rate in the water is one-eighth of what we see on land,” Cutler said.

Our use of the Internet keeps growing like mad, but the power consumed and carbon footprint of every gigabyte keeps dropping. It's nice to write about a trend going in the right direction for a change; pretty soon I might not have to count my gigabytes at all.