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Microsoft’s underwater datacenter: Project Natick

The technology to put sealed vessels underwater with computers inside isn’t new. In fact, it was one Microsoft employee’s experience serving on submarines that carry sophisticated equipment that got the ball rolling on this project. But Microsoft researchers do believe this is the first time a datacenter has been deployed below the ocean’s surface. Going under water could solve several problems by introducing a new power source, greatly reducing cooling costs, closing the distance to connected populations and making it easier and faster to set up datacenters.

A little background gives context for what led to the creation of the vessel. Datacenters are the backbone of cloud computing, and contain groups of networked computers that require a lot of power for all kinds of tasks: storing, processing and/or distributing massive amounts of information. The electricity that powers datacenters can be generated from renewable power sources such as wind and solar, or, in this case, perhaps wave or tidal power.

When datacenters are closer to where people live and work, there is less “latency,” which means that downloads, Web browsing and games are all faster. With more and more organizations relying on the cloud, the demand for datacenters is higher than ever – as is the cost to build and maintain them.

All this combines to form the type of challenge that appeals to Microsoft Research teams who are experts at exploring out-of-the-box solutions.

Ben Cutler, the project manager who led the team behind this experiment, dubbed Project Natick, is part of a group within Microsoft Research that focuses on special projects. “We take a big whack at big problems, on a short-term basis. We take a look at something from a new angle, a different perspective, with a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. So when a paper about putting datacenters in the water landed in front of Norm Whitaker, who heads special projects for Microsoft Research NExT, it caught his eye.

Cutler’s small team applied science and engineering to the concept. A big challenge involved people. People keep datacenters running. But people take up space. They need oxygen, a comfortable environment and light. They need to go home at the end of the day. When they’re involved you have to think about things like landscaping and security.

So the team moved to the idea of a “lights out” situation. A very simple place to house the datacenter, very compact and completely self-sustaining. And again, drawing from the submarine example, they chose a round container. “Nature attacks edges and sharp angles, and it’s the best shape for resisting pressure,” Cutler says. That set the team down the path of trying to figure out how to make a datacenter that didn’t need constant, hands-on supervision.

This initial test vessel wouldn’t be too far off-shore, so they could hook into an existing electrical grid, but being in the water raised an entirely new possibility: using the hydrokinetic energy from waves or tides for computing power. This could make datacenters work independently of existing energy sources, located closer to coastal cities, powered by renewable ocean energy.

That’s one of the big advantages of the underwater datacenter scheme – reducing latency by closing the distance to populations and thereby speeding data transmission. Half of the world’s population, Cutler says, lives within 120 miles of the sea, which makes it an appealing option.

This project also shows it’s possible to deploy datacenters faster, turning it from a construction project – which require permits and other time-consuming aspects – to a manufacturing one. Building the vessel that housed the experimental datacenter only took 90 days. While every datacenter on land is different and needs to be tailored to varying environments and terrains, these underwater containers could be mass produced for very similar conditions underwater, which is consistently colder the deeper it is.

Source: Microsoft News Center


Frederik De Breuck is better known as Stonyarc (GamerTag). Next to writing and maintaining his personal blog he is the owner of and . He's also Microsoft MVP (Most Valuable Professional) since 2010 and works as Presales Director for Fujitsu Belgium.

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