What's in store for the future of data centres?
That depends on who you ask.
For some, the future of data centres looks like sleek hallways and futuristic buildings. For others, it's more of the same-facilities that look like today's, but on a grander scale. For others still, though, the future of data centres is more abstract, with facilities buried deep underground or located on the outskirts of the Arctic Circle.
Microsoft, apparently in the "abstract" camp, is trying out something new: underwater data centres.
A New York Times article published earlier this year highlights Microsoft's new data centre project, which is code-named Project Natick, is based off of Microsoft researchers' belief that the future of data centres may be underwater. As you can imagine, making a data centre work underwater is no small feat.
One of the biggest technical challenges for data centre operators to overcome is heat. The computer hardware used in today's data centres is much more efficient than in years past, but is still susceptible to overheating-and still puts out a significant amount of heat when it's running.
Different data centres address the heat problem in different ways. Some contain the server racks in their own units, isolating them from the rest of the building to avoid excess cooling bills. Others run the temperature in their data centres higher, at limits which are safe for hardware but not necessarily comfortable for humans.
With this project, Microsoft hopes it can solve the heat problem by placing the hardware in a data centre hundreds of feet below the ocean's surface. As the New York Times notes, Microsoft "is considering pairing the system either with a turbine or a tidal energy system to generate electricity”, which could make the system even more efficient.
What does the system look like? Essentially, it's a giant sealed tube. The New York Times describes it as covered with heat exchangers, with sealed ends secured by metal plates and bolts. The actual hardware is a single data centre computing rack bathed in pressurized nitrogen.
The first test was successful, but of course there are many obstacles to widespread underwater data centre adoption. Environmental concerns are obviously important, as are technical and connectivity issues. But even with all the obstacles, Microsoft researchers hope that this project could lead to exciting new developments for the data centres of the future.
Whether the data centres of the future will be underwater or not, we can't say-but in any case, it's fascinating to see ideas like these being tested. Who knows what other ideas may be in store!
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