Microsoft retrieves Project Natick from the North Sea
In the Spring of 2018, Microsoft embarked upon an unusual project. A division of engineers and scientists under the name of , hauled a watertight shipping container out to sea, off the coast of Scotland’s Orkney Islands and dropped it to the bottom of the ocean.
Inside the sealed container: a state of the art micro data centre. Project Natick’s data centre has spent the past two years gathering barnacles and algae on the ocean floor for the past two years. Earlier this summer, , it finally saw the sunlight again.
Image by Jonathan Banks, courtesy of Microsoft Corporation
The retrieval marks the final stage in a project to prove the feasibility of underwater data centres. The results, Microsoft reveals, prove that the concept of underwater data centres is not only feasible, but logistically, environmentally and economically practical.
More than 50% of the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the coast. The ability to place data centres underwater in coastal regions would ensure increased local connectivity. The ocean floor is also a consistent and cheap source of empty real estate, at a time when land prices are spiking around the world.
Most importantly, however, the consistently low temperatures under the sea would allow underwater data centres to take energy efficient cooling to a new level. Microsoft notes that such facilities could “leverage heat-exchange plumbing such as that found on submarines.”
“We are now at the point of trying to harness what we have done as opposed to feeling the need to go and prove out some more,” Cutler added. “We have done what we need to do. Natick is a key building block for the company to use if it is appropriate.”
It's undetermined how Microsoft will use this newly proven technology, but the company has said that the next step in its adoption depends on the potential to scale up underwater data centres, with the eventual goal of supporting the full suite of Microsoft Azure cloud services using a network of containers the size of the Orkney facility.
“As we are moving from generic cloud computing to cloud and edge computing, we are seeing more and more need to have smaller datacenters located closer to customers instead of these large warehouse datacenters out in the middle of nowhere,” said , a principal member of technical staff for Microsoft’s Special Projects research group.
Liquid cooling market poised for growth
The data centre liquid cooling market is set for strong growth over the coming decade, as a series of high-profile trials by prominent hyperscalers and growing demand for greener, more efficient cooling drives adoption throughout the industry. A new report by Research and Markets puts the size of the liquid cooling industry in 2021 at just over $3.19bn globally. By 2026, that market is expected to exceed $7.2bn, exhibiting a CAGR of 14.64%.
Liquid cooling can trace its roots all the way back to the mid-1960’s, when IBM launched its first cooling system that used water instead of air. Chilled water was used to cool interboard heat exchangers to reduce the temperature rise across multiple stacks of boards populated with cards. The technology was, like many new innovations, somewhat expensive and unreliable; putting water and expensive electronics in close proximity to one another has always been seen as a somewhat risky business.
Things have come a long way since then, however, and it seems as though liquid cooling might finally be reaching maturity at a critical juncture in the data centre industry’s history, as skyrocketing demand for digital infrastructure collides with the non-negotiable need for more sustainable designs.
Research and Markets’ report lists three key factors as the key drivers behind this growth rate, which is expected to be more than 4% faster than the expansion of the overall data centre cooling industry during the 2021-2026 period.
Strategic collaboration with leading technical giants
Earlier this year, hyperscale cloud giant Microsoft announced that it had been playing around behind the scenes with a new type of liquid cooling solution from Bitfury spinout firm LiquidStack. We actually sat down with LiquidStack’s CEO, Joe Capes recently, and you can read the full interview in this month’s issue of Data Centre Magazine.
Microsoft’s interest in liquid cooling solutions apparently stems from its need to ensure its hyperscale facilities (which the company builds denser and runs hotter every year) continue to make progress in terms of efficiency.
“Air cooling is not enough,” said Christian Belady, distinguished engineer and vice president of Microsoft’s datacenter advanced development group in Redmond, Washington. “That’s what’s driving us to immersion cooling, where we can directly boil off the surfaces of the chip.”
Because heat transfer in liquids is orders of magnitude more efficient than air, Microsoft (and likely other hyperscalers looking to reap similar rewards) is expected to be a key driver of hyperscale adoption throughout the industry.
Bolstered production of liquid cooling systems
In response to growing interest and demand, liquid cooling companies are racing to globalise and scale up their offerings. A recent report from Markets and Markets identified more than 10 firms from across the world currently either diversifying into or directly targeting the liquid cooling sector of the data centre cooling industry: Asetek (Denmark), Rittal (Germany), Vertiv (US), Green Revolution Cooling (US), Midas Green Technologies (US), Allied Control (Hong Kong), Schneider Electric (France), Chilldyne (US), CoolIT Systems (Canada), Submer (Spain), Iceotope (UK), Fujitsu (Japan), Aspen Systems (US), DCX The Liquid Cooling Company (Poland), Ebullient (US), Aquila Group (US), ExaScaler (Japan), Cooler Master Co (China), Asperitas (Netherland), and Liqit.io (Ukraine).
Need to address the limitations associated with air-based cooling
Air cooling (such as hot-aisle-cold-aisle setups) remains the most widely-utilised solution for cooling data centres. However, as rack densities rise, and the climate crisis continues to make air-based free cooling less of a viable option in more and more places, liquid cooling could be the solution.
The growth of data centres at the edge is also a potential driver of liquid cooling adoption. Because edge data centres are built on much smaller footprints (commonly enough inside a shipping container), huge walls of fans are rarely efficient enough in terms of square-footage to support edge data centre needs, particularly with the growth of high performance computing (HPC) applications at the network edge.