Why is Microsoft Putting Computers in the Ocean?

If you’ve ever built or upgraded a computer with liquid cooling, you’ll know how effective it can be to put your CPU under water. I mean not literally but under a water block that has liquid circulating through it. But, could actually submerging computers in the world’s largest reservoir, the freaking ocean, be the way of the future?

liquid cooling system

Well, Microsoft seems to think so and they’re already operating underwater server farms with other large cloud providers likely to follow soon. But why are they bothering with something that sounds like it’s straight out of Futurama? How does that even work?

Electricity & Hardware Costs

It might be fairly easy and cheap to cool your home PC adequately. A $20 air cooler and a couple of case fans are probably gonna get the job done just fine. But when we talk about cooling off a massive data center, housing thousands of servers, we’re talking about millions of watts.

Microsoft Data Center in Quincy

Cooling costs start to add up very quickly. In fact, it’s estimated that data firms spend around a billion and a half dollars every year on electricity costs, just to keep their server farms cool. So at these scales efficiency really starts to matter and yeah you could always strap thousands of water coolers to these servers and call it a day but you would still have to get rid of the hot air coming off the radiators.

Why Put Computers in the Ocean?

It turns out, it’s more efficient to just take the entire data center and drop it in the sea. Water has a high heat capacity which means it can store a lot of heat energy without changing its own temperature very much.

Think about how a puddle next to the swimming pool can stay relatively cool compared to the scorching hot concrete right next to it. So an underwater data center housed in a watertight pod only needs a relatively simple heat exchange to dump its waste heat into the surrounding seawater.

Microsoft's Project Natick

This saves an enormous amount of energy compared to forcing hot air out of data centers on land especially when you consider, just how much ocean water there is to absorb the heat. Also, helping matters is that the ocean is quite cold once you go deep enough so you’d only have to submerge a server pod in one or two hundred meters of seawater to get excellent cooling even in warm tropical regions.

What else do we get to put Computers in the Ocean?

Better cooling isn’t even the only benefit to ocean-based server farms. Land-based data centers often have to be located in sparsely populated areas due to their physical size and lower costs for the land and the energy. Although this can save money, it also means that the data has to travel further to get to you which means more latency and lower speeds.

Underwater server pods, by contrast, can be placed close to coastal areas where far more people live. In fact, 40% of the global population resides within a hundred kilometers of coastline which means that a coastal server pod could make your internet experience feel a bit snappier. And speaking of snappier, it should actually be faster to build a bunch of server pods and then dunk them in the ocean compared to building new land-based data centers every time a company needs to increase capacity.

Natick Deployment

Well, sure it comes with some engineering challenges, for sure, but not only does constructing a big server warehouse require a lot of land, you also have to consider local conditions such as topography, the workforce, and government restrictions anywhere you want to build one.

Building a Underwater Server Farm

Underwater server farms though could be built in an assembly-line fashion almost identically and then quickly shipped to any place that needs them. They could even be moved around if necessary. They would just need to be connected to data lines and a power source.

Power Source and Limitations of Computers in the Ocean

So one Microsoft pod that’s currently off the Scottish coast draws power from a nearby wind farm on the Orkney Islands. In fact, offshore wind installations may prove to be a popular solution for powering these pods in the not so distant future.

Now, of course, sticking a bunch of servers underwater presents some real challenges. You can’t exactly just send a team of divers out every time a hard drive fails. So the pod needs to be designed with redundancies and better remote access to allow land lubber technicians to handle problems more effectively.

Here’s an old video from Microsoft when they tested the underwater server farm in Scotland:

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