Beyond Jules Verne's Wildest Dreams: 20,000 Petabytes Under the Sea: Exploring Subsea Data Centres with Microsoft in the Orkney Islands

Learning Centre > Beyond Jules Verne's Wildest Dreams: 20,000 Petabytes Under the Sea: Exploring Subsea Data Centres with Microsoft in the Orkney Islands

In a world of rapidly changing environmental conditions, businesses are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

In a world of rapidly changing environmental conditions, businesses are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to reduce their carbon footprint.In a world of rapidly changing environmental conditions, businesses are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

In a world of rapidly changing environmental conditions, businesses are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Microsoft's recent announcement that they will be opening a subsea data centre in the Orkney Islands is a prime example of this. The data centre, which is the first of its kind, will use the natural environment to its advantage, with the cool temperatures of the water helping to keep the servers cool.

The data centre is just one part of Microsoft's wider initiative to reduce its environmental impact. The company has also been working on better management of data, in order to reduce storage costs and emissions from data centres. This includes deleting anything that turns out to be unneeded and making sure that data is compressed before it is sent to the cloud.

In terms of boardroom conversations, there’s a big difference between, “let’s move our data underwater in five years’ time” to “let’s get rid of the data we don’t use more regularly, oh and whilst we’re there, why don’t we make sure we know what the rest of our data is.” Adapting to change has become almost second nature to everyone since the beginning of 2020, so it’s entirely likely that the smaller behavioural and organisational changes will be more straightforward to make at the moment than the much bigger ones.

Members of the Project Natick team power wash the Northern Isles underwater datacenter, which was retrieved from the seafloor off the Orkney Islands in Scotland. Two years underwater provided time for a thin coat of algae and barnacles to form on the steel tube, and for sea anemones to grow to cantaloupe size in the sheltered nooks of its ballast-filled triangular base. Photo by Jonathan Banks.

Members of the Project Natick team power wash the Northern Isles underwater datacenter, which was retrieved from the seafloor off the Orkney Islands in Scotland. Two years underwater provided time for a thin coat of algae and barnacles to form on the steel tube, and for sea anemones to grow to cantaloupe size in the sheltered nooks of its ballast-filled triangular base. Photo by Jonathan Banks.

The protective nature of underwater data centres however is a different matter. I am constantly talking with customers about the value of backing-up data off-site and separate from other infrastructure. With the possible exception of outer space, there can be little doubt that the bottom of the sea must be one of the best possible options for a backup data centre. One of the consequences of increased emissions and climate change has been the escalation of extreme weather, with events like wildfires, and floods increase in frequency and severity. Data centres under the sea are, by nature, resilient against these types of disasters – it brings a whole new meaning to being ‘air-gapped’.

In the Microsoft test case, just eight of the 855 servers failed in the two years after it was lowered into the ocean. The average land-based data centre hardware failure rate is 12.5 percent, meaning that the subsea data centre had an instant hardware cost-saving. This is largely credited to a combination of the environment and the lack of human interaction within the datacentre.

The seabed also represents a near-perfect environment for either data back-up or service failover for disaster recovery. With no people around to interfere with things, and plenty of space for expansion, subsea data centres could be the answer to our prayers when it comes to safeguarding important data.

So what does the future hold for subsea data centres? It is estimated that by 2025, there could be as many as 20,000 petabytes of data stored underwater. This is the equivalent of 2.5 billion 32Gb iPads – or enough to store every single movie ever made, twice over.

Microsoft's subsea data centre is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to underwater data storage. With the right technology and infrastructure in place, the sky (or rather, the seabed) is the limit when it comes to storing our ever-growing mountain of data.

As we generate more and more data, businesses are going to have to find increasingly creative ways to store it all. Subsea data centres could be the solution to our problem – and they may even turn out to be more cost-effective and reliable than their terrestrial counterparts.

Only time will tell whether subsea data centres are here to stay – but one thing is for sure, they are an intriguing solution to a very 21st-century problem.

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