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[Discussion] Exploring the Depths: Microsoft's Underwater Data Centers and the Future of Sustainable Data Solutions

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Microsoft's Underwater Data Centers Experiment

Data centers have been undergoing changes of late, and Microsoft has been on the forefront of these advances. In 2018, the tech giant began experimenting with underwater data compartments as part of its Project Natick. The objective was to test the feasibility of installing data centers underwater, changing the known norms of data center placements.

The unique environment of an underwater data center allowed Microsoft to test several factors that wouldn't have been possible with traditional data centers. For example, the underwater units were filled with nitrogen rather than oxygen. This is beneficial since oxygen, while vital for human survival, can inflict damage to computers. Moreover, temperature requirements differ wildly for humans and machines, so subaquatic data centers presented an advantageous ambient temperature for machinery without the risk of human interference.

Project Natick provided interesting results, one of which was underwater data centers boasting only one-eighth the failure rate of their land-based counterparts. However, you'll no longer find active underwater data centers in 2024. Microsoft has been tight-lipped about the reasons behind stopping the use of these underwater compartments.

Insights from Project Natick

The demise of Microsoft's active underwater data centers doesn't mean the end of Project Natick. Noelle Walsh, Corporate Vice President of Microsoft's Cloud Operations + Innovation team, indicated the project's worth, noting in a report from DCD, "My team worked on it, and it worked. We learned a lot about operations below sea level and vibration impacts on the server. We'll apply those learnings to other cases."

Microsoft clarified in a statement to Data Center Dynamics that it plans to continue using Project Natick as a research platform for exploring, testing, and validating new ideas around data center reliability and sustainability, such as with liquid immersion. It leaves the possibility open that the tech giant will use findings from Project Natick to improve data centers in different environments.

The Future of Data Centers

The demand for data centers is growing globally. Trends like artificial intelligence and cloud computing are increasing, with most of the data processing for AI performed in the cloud. Consequently, this raises the demand for data centers.

Aside from AI, numerous other technologies also drive the demand for data centers. Cloud computing, smart home devices, web browsing and billions of devices connected to the internet collectively contribute to the ever-increasing demand for these centers. As the demand increases, so do the considerations for energy and maintenance requirements.

The successful use and testing of Project Natick underline that there are viable and sustainable alternatives for data processing centers. While the underwater data centers might not be active anymore, the knowledge and lessons from such innovative projects can offer pathways for future improvements in data center technology.

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