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Microsoft tests submarine data centres

Mon 1 Feb 2016

Project Natick

Microsoft has announced a new research project which involves moving some of its data centre capacity underwater, examining the environmental benefits and cost effectiveness of subsea servers.

The concept behind Project Natick was first explored three years ago in a white paper penned by a Microsoft employee who had experience of Navy submarine technologies. A team began developing a physical prototype in 2014 and last year a server – measuring around eight feet in diameter – was installed off the coast of California. It lasted for 105 days, which was a lot longer than the scientists had predicted.

“When I first heard about this I thought, ‘Water … electricity, why would you do that?’” said Microsoft computer designer Ben Cutler. “But as you think more about it, it actually makes a lot of sense.” Cutler referred to the cooling advantages, as well as the logistical benefits of the idea. Microsoft noted that nearly 50% of the world’s population resides close to large bodies of water, meaning that submarine data centre capacity would be available near major residential areas and able to meet the huge data requirements in these locations.

The tech giant also added that the subsea servers would allow for rapid provisioning – taking just 90 days to deploy, as opposed to years for land-based centres. It argued that this could enable fast response to shifts in market demand, natural disasters and special events, such as World Cups.

Microsoft further claimed that the Natick data centres are be emission-free, and able to power themselves using renewable energy resources.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 14.29.00Answering concerns over maintenance and engineering issues, Microsoft added: ‘With the end of Moore’s Law, the cadence at which servers are refreshed with new and improved hardware in the data center is likely to slow significantly. We see this as an opportunity to field long-lived, resilient data centers that operate “lights out” – nobody on site – with very high reliability for the entire life of the deployment, possibly as long as 10 years.’

Leona Philpot, the name of Project Natick’s first prototype, contained a single rack installed inside a container filled with nitrogen. Over a hundred sensors were used to monitor underwater conditions, including humidity, pressure and motion, both inside and outside of the capsule.

The team’s next challenge is to develop a server three times the size of Leona, with trials due to start over the next year.

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