Culture

A Life Aquatic for Microsoft’s Experimental Underwater Data Centers

7 Feb 2016 10:23am, by

Turns out, there might be a bit more room in Davy Jones’ Locker.

Microsoft Research is testing the possibility of submerging data centers into the ocean, designing and deploying “Project Natick,” an underwater data center.

Microsoft reasoned that half the world’s population lives within 125 miles of the ocean, so wouldn’t it make sense to keep all the data they produce within the ocean itself?

Between August and November, Natick stayed submerged in California about half a mile from the coast of San Luis Obispo, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

But throughout the trial, the data center was remotely controlled from Microsoft’s offices in Redmond, Washington.

Natick seems to have captured the imagination of the world with its first successful test of an undersea datacenter. Last week saw new articles on the experiment from Fortune and VentureBeat to PC World and Popular Science. And Monday Microsoft’s research arm uploaded a new video to their YouTube channel.

Project Natick sensor

And the results? Nothing bad happened. Microsoft lengthened the trial to 105 days, according to the New York Times, and it even ran some Azure data-processing projects. Now Microsoft is working on a system that’s three times as large, which they’re expecting to test in 2017. “Basically, what we’re doing is taking green data centers, and deploying them in the ocean off the coast,” explained Ben Cutler in a video on the project’s site.

“The overall goal here is deploy datacenters at scale anywhere in the world from decision to power-on within 90 days.”

Leona Philpott (on boat headed out to sea)
The speedy deployment of these undersea data centers could be useful — for example, if there’s a natural disaster or a World Cup soccer match. But according to the project’s website, there’s also some other potential advantages. They’re expecting these data centers to produce “dramatic” reductions in latency and better responsiveness. And Microsoft also cites the “sustainability requirements” some of their customers may have, noting that these datacenters will be able to use locally-produced green energy.

“A Natick data center co-located with offshore renewable energy sources could be truly zero emission: no waste products, whether due to the power generation, computers, or human maintainers are emitted into the environment,” the company reasoned.

In fact, they’ll even be made from recycled materials, according to the project’s site, and also recycled again when they’re finally decommissioned. Since the computers in these undersea racks are expected to last five years, that will also be the expected lifespan of each data center, but “after each five-year deployment cycle, the data center would be retrieved, reloaded with new computers, and redeployed.” The data centers themselves are expected to last 20 years.

Ironically, the submersible data center doesn’t consume any water — not even for cooling.

Leona Philpott (ready for deployment)

Microsoft’s site cautions this is still a “research stage” project. “It’s still early days in evaluating whether this concept could be adopted by Microsoft and other cloud service providers.”

But the team still seems excited by their early success, judging by their reactions in Microsoft’s video. “It’s not like a moonshot, in the sense that it’s just some outlandish thing,” said Spencer Fowers, one of the project’s research engineers. “It’s actually a viable product that we could make.”

And Microsoft even seems to be having some fun. The pod was named Leona Philpot, an obscure character mentioned somewhere in Microsoft’s Halo universe. In a 2004 pre-release marketing campaign called I Love Bees, two characters remembered the girl who became homecoming queen at their high school after breaking her neck while diving into a swimming pool. “[T]hey chose the one character from the Halo universe who likely had the worst experience with water to name their project,” joked one commenter on Reddit.”

Leona Philpott (in the water)

Microsoft’s celebratory video shows pelicans and seagulls hovering over the ocean waves, but just below the surface lurked some serious science. “The underwater system was outfitted with 100 different sensors to measure pressure, humidity, motion and other conditions,” reports the Times, “to better understand what it is like to operate in an environment where it is impossible to send a repairman in the middle of the night.” And the end result? Instead of disturbing the nearby undersea wildlife, “the clicking of the shrimp that swam next to the system drowned out any noise created by the container.”

Ultimately, “Sea life in the local vicinity quickly adapted to the presence of the vessel,” Microsoft reported on the project’s site. And Leona Philpott?

The entire undersea data center was returned to Microsoft’s campus and is now partially covered with barnacles.

Leona Philpott (headed to California)

Images from Microsoft.


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