Microsoft Builds, Tests Underwater Data Center

If half the world's population lives near the coast, why doesn't the data? Microsoft asked this question before building and testing an underwater data center the Redmond, Washington company calls Project Natick.

The project aims to understand the benefits and difficulties in deploying subsea data centers worldwide. It would move the data centers powering cloud services like streaming video, search support, and the ability to serve advertisements in a variety of media across the Web.

"Going underwater 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 data centers," according to the Microsoft research team,. The belief is that oceanic data centers could reduce latency by closing the distance from the source to populations.

The project of designing, building, and deploying a subsea data center in the ocean took about a year. Moving the standard data servers modified for underwater to live in the ocean makes the cable to customers as short as possible, says Jeff Kramer, Microsoft research engineer, in a video.

The server is sealed in a waterproof container. Kramer likens the plunge into the ocean similar to launching a satellite into space.

"It's not like a moonshot like in the sense that it's some outlandish thing," says Spencer Fowers, Microsoft research engineer. "It's actually a viable product."

Microsoft names the first prototype Leona Philpot, after the Halo character who appears on its Xboxes.

The test began last fall about a kilometer off the California coast, 30 feet underwater. The test enclosed a single data center computing rack in an eight foot-wide steel capsule, which was covered in sensors that monitored water pressure, humidity, and other factors.

A Natick data-center deployment should last for up to five years, which is the anticipated lifespan of the computers contained within. At that time Microsoft would retrieve the data center and redeploy a new one. The target lifespan of a Natick data center is at least 20 years, according to Microsoft.




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