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Is Underwater Data Storage the Next Big Thing?

September 18, 2020

Seas and oceans cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface. Yet, data centers, the secure containers of digital information worldwide, are still primarily built on land. Besides space constraints, land-based data centers are vulnerable to myriad issues such as weather fluctuations, corrosion (caused by oxygen), and humidity levels – all potentially damaging valuable data.

Conventional server maintenance and data management issues have prompted data experts to consider the advantages of submerged data centers.

The History of Submerged Data Centers

Microsoft first considered the viability of submerged data centers in 2014, during Think Week, where decision-makers convened to discuss concepts and goals. The Microsoft team brainstormed for an alternate data storage method that was sustainable and achievable at a low cost.

The Think Week discussions led to an interest in watertight datacenters buried beneath the seas. Microsoft’s Specialized Project team conceived the idea partly based on the fact that 40% of the world’s populations live close to a coastal line, suggesting that submerged data centers could reduce the travel distance of data packets and improve internet use for many communities.

Microsoft’s cost-effective concept shaped up over a year and finally materialized in a prototype experiment. In 2015, the company officially launched phase 1 of Project Natick, the submerged datacenter prototype deployed off the coast of California for three months. The trial proved successful, which encouraged the team to work on a larger-scale project, which tested the commercial feasibility of their novel technology.


In 2018, Microsoft Special Projects oversaw their second underwater project involving 864 servers and 27.6 petabytes of data. The project codenamed “Northern Isles” was conducted off the coast of Scotland and remained submerged for two years before being hauled up in July for examination.

Reported Processes and Advantages 

Microsoft remains optimistic regarding submerged databases. Underwater datacenters reportedly experience one-eighth of the failure rate compared to land-based facilities, which is essential since submerged cylinders make it challenging for routine maintenance.

Submerged datacenters take only 90 days from manufacture to deployment, compared to two years for traditional data storage. Data researchers filled cylinders with dry nitrogen, a gas that is less corrosive than atmospheric oxygen. Month-long air sample tests showed that the gases released by the submerged equipment had a minimum impact on server operations.


Issues to Consider

Despite Microsoft’s positive stance on the subject, submerged datacenters may still raise some concerns. Cyber communities may seek answers to these pressing issues before switching out dryland datacenters for underwater alternatives.

Environmental Concerns

Modern society is well-informed and engaged in green advocacy. The influx of submerged data centers may gradually alter water biochemistry and threaten the existence of sea life, leading to concerns and backlash from green communities. Data managers may need to provide a transparent policy on the use of non-toxic materials in datacenter construction.

Microsoft’s Nantik team is currently working on how data center parts (including servers and heat exchangers) can be easily extracted and recycled at the end of their life. The team also intends to explore ways to restore sea floors to natural conditions before database deployment, which minimizes footprint.

Maintenance and Repair Concerns 

While submerged datacenters feature lower failure rates, the topic of regular maintenance is likely to remain a lingering concern. Data users will eventually seek greater accountability in managing submerged databases, especially processes that involve emergency maintenance and salvage operations.

Microsoft’s Specialized Project team is gradually moving toward a “lights-out infrastructure,” where administrators remotely maintain submerged servers with cutting-edge AI and robotic capabilities. Lights-out facilities eliminate the need for direct human intervention, which improves overall security and energy efficiency.

Submerged Data Centers Could Be The Future

Despite potential concerns, submerged databases seem to offer multiple benefits compared to traditional land-based deployments. Most of the energy consumption of servers comes from cooling processes. Underwater environments receive a natural cooling down effect from the surrounding cold waters, which reduces the risks of overheating and server faults.

The demand for digital connectivity is likely to rapidly rise in time as more communities gain access to the internet. An increase in data requires more robust infrastructures that sustain and scale communications in record time. Submerged datacenters may serve as a solution in the future as sustainable, cost-effective, and easily deployed warehouses of precious data.

Data managers may discover newfound ways to leverage technology such as RAID (redundant array of dispensable disks) to optimize servers throughout regions with inadequate grid power. Organizations may combine the capabilities of multiple submerged databases to achieve technological shifts through flexible data usage. The possibilities are limitless with submerged data warehouses.

Microsoft’s groundbreaking research is possibly the first in a long line of submerged data center trends. The need for fast deployment and access to data caches remains a priority in a world increasingly engaged in digital activity.