Data Center Cooling Idea Makes Waves

Jim Poole


Above: An artist’s rendition of what a data center might look like under the sea. NOTE: The “artist” should probably stay away from Photoshop in the future.

Microsoft may be in over its head on this one. According to articles in Government Technology and the NY Times, the software and operating system behemoth is testing the idea of submerging Azure cloud data centers under the ocean, off the California Polytechnic State University pier near Avila Beach.

The goal is to slash monstrous data center cooling costs via a 38,000-pound, submerged, water-proof data center container and leveraging the natural cooling capabilities of the ocean. Microsoft recently submerged a 10 by 7-foot capsule, 30 feet underwater for 105 days to test for leakage and cooling potential. The company may eventually even incorporate turbines to use tidal energy to generate lower cost, sustainable electricity.

The test location was more than suitable thanks to a trove of subsea international telecommunication cables that come ashore nearby in Morro Bay and could potentially serve as least cost routing to and from Asia. According to Microsoft, more than half the world’s population lives near the coasts so the potential exists for lightning fast, very low-latency cloud data transmissions to thousands or millions of users-certainly a better latency solution than today’s typical strategy of building data centers in remote areas far away from users.

It’s a brilliant solution to a lot of very expensive challenges, including cooling, electricity costs and fast cloud interconnections. According to the NY Times article, Microsoft believes it can mass produce the submerged capsules and shorten data center deployment from two years to 90 days.

Other Cool Ideas

While Equinix hasn’t submerged any data centers yet, it has followed a similar train of thought, placing Equinix colocation centers close to global urban populations for fast, low latency interconnections. We support the FASTER system to backhaul transpacific subsea cabling connections directly into our data centers in Los Angeles, Silicon Valley and Seattle and transatlantic cabling built by Aqua Comms into our New York and London locations.

We haven’t dived into the cooling potential of the ocean yet, but our Toronto-based, TR1 data center, and other nearby buildings, leverage the city’s Deep Lake Water Cooling (DLWC) system, drawing water from the cold depths of Lake Ontario, in order to reduce fossil fuel energy needs by about half and slash indirect greenhouse emissions. This innovative system transfers energy between the cold lake water and a closed loop chilled water supply, which uses far less power than the compressors of typical chilled water systems.

Other Equinix data centers use water-side and air-side economizers in their HVAC systems that take advantage of the natural cooling of the ambient environment to slash electrical and cooling costs. Our Amsterdam data center (AM3) uses an innovative Aquifer Thermal Energy Storage (ATES) system that harnesses ground water to chill air on the colocation floor when the temperature rises above 18 degrees Celsius. Other times it relies on free air cooling. And the savings don’t stop with cooling, as the same center uses the hot air generated by the IT equipment to warm nearby buildings.

And some of our newest sites, such as NY6 as well as our current Flex Design builds, employ the use of Indirect Evaporative Cooling (IDEC) units, which utilize evaporative based heat rejection indirectly via use of an air-side heat exchanger. IDEC units eliminate the need for humidity control and tight air filtration of outside air used for direct air-side economizers and reduce water usage for heat rejection as well as reduce overall mechanical cooling capacity required in most locations. The reduction in mechanical cooling capacity facilitates a peak PUE of 1.40 and annual PUE of about 1.24 for IDEC units, which is lower than the PUE for an equivalent chilled water system by 0.10 to 0.15 (peak) and 0.05 to 0.10 (annual).

At Equinix we are constantly looking for new ways to innovate and Microsoft’s cooling idea is a fascinating one that could be in the future for scores of cloud and colocation providers like Equinix. We’re keeping a close eye on these and other cool innovations. In the meantime, learn more about our “Green by Design” initiatives.