Microsoft is planning to build submarine-like data centres under the ocean iStock

Microsoft is planning to dive underwater in the future with its prototype data centre that it tested hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean, recently in California. Under Project Natick, data centres will live under the sea in order to tackle high energy costs and control the carbon footprint.

Data centres generate a lot of heat and require intense cooling from air-conditioning, failing which they may crash. This costs IT & technology companies like Microsoft a lot of money in energy bills, besides being bad for the environment. Submarine-like data centres, which could use tidal-fuelled turbines to generate power as ocean water is cooler than ambient air, could drastically bring down air-conditioning costs.

With Microsoft managing more than 100 data centres around the globe and rapidly adding to that count, such a project if successful could work wonders for the firm. The company has already spent more than $15bn on a global data centre system that now provides more than 200 online services.

Talking of how Microsoft came up with such an idea, the company told New York Times, "It all started in 2013 when Microsoft employee, Sean James, who served on a US Navy submarine submitted a ThinkWeek Paper. Norm Whitaker read the paper and built a team to explore the idea of placing computers or even entire data centers in water. In late 2014, Microsoft kicked off Project Natick. The rest is history."

The project may lead to lengths of giant steel tubes linked by fibre-optic cables being placed on the seafloor. Microsoft has already been significantly investing in sub-sea and terrestrial dark fibre capacity by engaging in partnerships that span multiple oceans and continents.

The company said it has started designing another similar system that will be three times larger than the present project. It will be built in collaboration with a yet-to-be-chosen developer of an ocean-based alternative-energy system. Microsoft engineers said they expected a fresh trial for the same to begin in 2017 near Florida or in Northern Europe.

Risks and threats

Despite potential environmental benefits and cost savings, the side effects of such a system are yet to be analysed. The impact it may have on the natural habitat of sea life is a worrying challenge.

Ocean temperatures increasing artificially could be enough to disrupt the marine ecosystem clubbed with the already existing threat to its bio-life. Regulatory and green approvals are vital for such a project to become a risk-free proposal.

Placing data centres in cooler climates is, however, slowly becoming a trend to cut energy costs and this project is definitely a step forward. Facebook placed one of its latest state-of-the-art data centres in Lulea, Sweden to make use of renewable hydro power and natural air for cooling. Nautilus Data Technologies is also building a floating data centre, which may be used by the US Navy.