Deepwater data: Microsoft trials undersea data centre

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Project Natick: Microsoft's underwater data centre.
The Natick Team: Eric Peterson, Spencer Fowers, Norm Whitaker, Ben Cutler, Jeff Kramer (left to right).
The Natick Team: Eric Peterson, Spencer Fowers, Norm Whitaker, Ben Cutler, Jeff Kramer (left to right).

Microsoft thinks the future of data centres could be subsea. The firm said it has successfully deployed an underwater data centre off the coast of California and could potentially deploy future models in as little as 90 days.

The New York Times first reported that Microsoft completed a three-month trial in which a single rack was placed inside an 8 foot tubular vessel – dubbed Leona Philpot after a character in its Halo Xbox series – and immersed in pressurised nitrogen.

“The servers are standard type servers that you would find in any data centre that have been modified for this particular environment,” said Project Natick mechanical engineer Eric Peterson.

The idea is that the computers in the submarine data centre last five years. After that, they are hauled back up to the surface and replaced and redeployed. Microsoft’s target lifespan for each capsule is at least 20 years.

“It’s a radical approach to how we deploy data centres,” said project manager Ben Cutler. “What we are doing is taking green data centres and deploying them in the ocean off the coast. The overall goal is deploy data centres at scale anywhere in the world, from decision to power on, within in 90 days,” he said. “Half the world’s population lives within 200KMs of the sea.”

Microsoft admits the project is still at an “early phase in evaluating whether this concept could be adopted by Microsoft and other cloud providers”. But research engineer Spencer Flowers suggested the project was no PR stunt (it has been in development since 2013).

“It’s not like a moonshot in the sense that it is some kind of outlandish thing,” he said. “It’s actually a viable product that we could make.”

Another engineer on the project, Jeff Kramer, likened the trial to building a satellite.

“Once you’ve built it, you hand to the guys with the rocket, or in our case, the crane. You can’t do anything about it if it screws up.”

Microsoft is reportedly now planning a version three times larger. It may also link the prototype to an energy source such as a wave or tidal turbine.

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