Skip to main content
Move the World.
Underwater Data Center

Lead Image Courtesy of Jonathan Banks

Two years ago, Microsoft packed more than 800 computer servers into a tube the size of a shipping container — and then sank it to the bottom of the North Sea.

The company's goal? See whether an underwater data center could overcome the limitations of its terrestrial counterparts.

Microsoft has now retrieved its sunken data — and the results of the experiment suggest that the ocean could be a better home for data.

Temperamental Data Centers

Data centers are massive hubs that house servers and other equipment that companies rely on to store and distribute digital data — Google alone requires 20 dedicated data centers across the globe for its 2.5 million servers.

A problem with a data center can halt an entire company's operations — Twitter, Facebook, and countless others can attest to that — and there are quite a few reasons why servers might go down.

"Computers are not designed to work in the environment that we humans operate," Spencer Fowers, a researcher involved in Microsoft's underwater data center, said. "Things like oxygen, moisture in the air — that is really bad for computers. It causes corrosion on the components."

"You also get things like temperature fluctuations," he continued, "so the heat from night to day and summer to winter can cause those components to fail."

Even something as seemingly minor as a data center worker bumping into or moving equipment can disrupt its functionality, according to Fowers.

Microsoft's Underwater Data Center

Microsoft built its underwater data center to test a theory that it's not only possible to house the facilities under the ocean, but also beneficial.

For one, the location of the center — 100 feet below the ocean's surface — would allow it to avoid some of the temperature fluctuations that can impact a traditional facility's reliability. The cold water around the center would also help prevent the equipment from overheating.

By designing the underwater data center to function autonomously, Microsoft could also eliminate any chance of workers damaging equipment. And without humans, there's no need for oxygen in a data center, so Microsoft could replace it with nitrogen, which is less corrosive to equipment.

"We think that we're past the point where this is a science experiment."

Ben Cutler

In July, Microsoft retrieved the data center from the ocean floor — and based on early analysis, it seems the theory worked.

After two years, just eight of the 855 servers in the underwater data center had failed — a rate just one-eighth of that experienced on land, Microsoft researcher Ben Cutler said in a news release.

The team is now studying the equipment housed within the data center to figure out why it was more reliable. After that, the focus will be on exploring ways to scale up, perhaps by linking multiple underwater data centers togethers.

"We think that we're past the point where this is a science experiment," Cutler told the BBC. "Now it's simply a question of what do we want to engineer — would it be a little one, or would it be a large one?"

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

DIY
The Homemade Internet Service
The Homemade Internet Service
Watch Now
DIY
The Homemade Internet Service
We all get tired of our internet service. But what if instead of just restarting your router, you started your own internet service?
Watch Now

We all get tired of our internet service. Too expensive, too slow, too many lost signals. But what if instead of just restarting your router, you started your own internet service? Sounds crazy, but that’s exactly what one man did.

Send Messages and Use Apps Without the Internet
Send Messages and Use Apps Without the Internet
Watch Now
Send Messages and Use Apps Without the Internet
Sending texts and using apps without the internet isn’t magic. It’s very real. And it could be a game-changer for those that need it most. Here’s why…
Watch Now

Millions of mobile users are coming online across the developing world. And yet, in many places, internet service remains slow and data can be expensive. The FireChat app is working to solve this problem. Users can create small, peer-to-peer networks within 200 feet of each other, and the more individuals on the network, the better it becomes. While traditional cell networks are slowed down and interrupted by overuse,...

This Computer Can Write 2,000 Snarky Articles Per Second
This Computer Can Write 2,000 Snarky Articles Per Second
This Computer Can Write 2,000 Snarky Articles Per Second
What does it mean for the future of journalism when a computer can turn mounds of data into a cohesive narrative?
By Mike Riggs

What does it mean for the future of journalism when a computer can turn mounds of data into a cohesive narrative?

Computing
World’s Fastest Supercomputer Helps Battle COVID-19
supercomputer
Computing
World’s Fastest Supercomputer Helps Battle COVID-19
The Summit supercomputer made quick work of complicated simulations to identify 77 compounds that could be promising COVID-19 treatments.

The Summit supercomputer made quick work of complicated simulations to identify 77 compounds that could be promising COVID-19 treatments.

Robotics
This AI Robot Could Become Your Favorite Coworker
AI Robot
Robotics
This AI Robot Could Become Your Favorite Coworker
European researchers have developed an AI robot to safely work alongside humans, anticipating their needs and providing a strong pair of extra hands.

European researchers have developed an AI robot to safely work alongside humans, anticipating their needs and providing a strong pair of extra hands.

Fertility
Cancer Survivor Gives Birth Thanks to a New Fertility Procedure
Cancer Survivor Gives Birth Thanks to a New Fertility Procedure
Fertility
Cancer Survivor Gives Birth Thanks to a New Fertility Procedure
A French cancer survivor is the first person to give birth via a fertility treatment that involves freezing and thawing eggs that underwent in vitro maturation.

A French cancer survivor is the first person to give birth via a fertility treatment that involves freezing and thawing eggs that underwent in vitro maturation.

Dispatches
Will Probiotics Cure Cholera?
Will Probiotics Cure Cholera?
Dispatches
Will Probiotics Cure Cholera?
MIT scientists say eating good bacteria can prevent, cure, and diagnose cholera—cheaply.

MIT scientists say eating good bacteria can prevent, cure, and diagnose cholera—cheaply.

Dispatches
Researchers Want to Create A Traffic Cop for the Sky
Researchers Want to Create A Traffic Cop for the Sky
Dispatches
Researchers Want to Create A Traffic Cop for the Sky
A new kind of radar could direct drone traffic safely around city skies.

A new kind of radar could direct drone traffic safely around city skies.