Researchers at Microsoft are betting the future of computing lies under the sea.
The company recently tested an innovative data center that lives hundreds of feet below sea level, The New York Times reports. Why? One of the most costly aspects of operating data servers is the air-conditioning bill to keep them from overheating. The underwater-capsule prototype Microsoft built uses the cold ocean water to keep the servers cool. Microsoft has spent more than $15 billion on its more than 100 data centers globally to date, and is building new ones at a fast rate, the Times reports.
After a successful trial of its eight-foot capsule, Microsoft has begun work on a second version that will be three times as large and will begin testing it next year. While lowering the cost of cooling machines could be a major technical innovation, the project is also genius for other reasons. Here are three features the Times cited that could make Microsoft's project a game changer for computing.
1. Harvesting wave energy
Microsoft is toying with the idea of linking the underwater servers to a turbine or other system that harnesses electricity from tidal energy. This could involve steel tubes that connect fiber-optic cables resting on the bottom of the ocean. Importantly, the system would probably not add any additional heat that could compromise marine life, Microsoft says, as an early test found an "extremely" small amount of heat given off by the system.
2. Making better servers, faster
The two years it takes Microsoft to deploy a new data center on land could be reduced dramatically through the use of underwater capsules. How? By mass-producing the capsules, Microsoft says it could get the total time down to roughly three months, creating significant new efficiencies and cost savings.
3. Speeding up the internet
Because most data centers are built in sparsely populated areas with plenty of open space, the physical location of many computing hubs is far away from coastal cities where much of the world's population lives. This distance often contributes to the delays many people experience when accessing the internet. Submerging underwater data centers closer to internet users could help speed up wait times for the millions of people living in coastal cities.
Like any innovative product still in its testing stage, the new data capsule runs the risk of unforeseeable glitches or negative environmental impacts that could counteract or even eliminate any potential benefit. (Submerging large electrical gadgets in the ocean, where a single leak could lead to massive damage, also sounds like a recipe for disaster.) But Ben Cutler, a computer designer at Microsoft, told the Times his early concerns about the concept have virtually evaporated. "[A]s you think more about it, it actually makes a lot of sense," he said.