Microsoft’s Under the Sea Data Center Experiment

MicrosoftMost Information Technology departments keep their computer servers far away from water. Microsoft, however, believes the future for data centers may not be in the clouds or buildings housing server farms, but actually in the water. To test the theory, Microsoft just announced completion of an experiment that involved putting a self-contained data center under the sea.

The company recently conducted a more than three-month trial of an underwater data center housed in a steel cylinder. The water-tight capsule, approximately eight feet in diameter, contained a server rack with the power of about 300 PCs that was controlled from the Microsoft campus. The underwater container also housed about 100 sensors to measure pressure, motion, humidity and other conditions to gauge what operating under water entails.

The capsule was placed about 30 feet deep in the Pacific Ocean off of Central California. The Project Natick experiment was originally supposed to be shorter. However, when the system proved successful, it effort was extended to test more capabilities and even run some commercial data-processing projects from the company’s cloud computing service. A diver descended once a month to check on the vessel. There proved to be no leakages, just a lot of barnacles attaching themselves to the outside of the cylinder. The successful experiment could show the future of computing is in the deep sea as well as the clouds.

Data centers normally present firms with two problems: a high air-conditioning bill and finding a location that is out of the way but not too far to affect performance. The Microsoft experiment, code-named Project Natick, tested a prototype solution to both problems.

The thousands of computer servers in data centers generate lots of heat. But the machines need to be kept cool to operate smoothly. That is why most companies spend a lot on air conditioning and keep the rooms frigid. But, sticking the servers deep in the ocean will keep them cool without the overhead.

Housing data centers far from end users in urban centers can slow computing power. However, many major cities are located near water, which would be an advantage. According to Microsoft, half of the world’s population resides less than 120 miles from a sea. The hope is that the underwater server containers would reduce the latency and help make web services work faster.

The concept of having sealed vessels deep in the ocean with computer inside is not a new one. Submarines have been deployed with computing power for years. In fact, it was one Microsoft employee’s background serving on submarines that led to the project.

The company is now working on a new underwater mechanism that will be approximately four times as large. They expect to conduct a new trial next year, probably in the Atlantic Ocean near ocean energy projects that other entities are working on. The Microsoft team would like to pair the underwater data center with either with a turbine or a tidal energy system to generate the electricity to run it. Using the energy from waves or tides for computing power could make datacenters independent of traditional energy sources with renewable ocean energy as the power source. (The initial test was conducted close to the California shore, so the existing electrical grid was employed.)

One possible stumbling block for the future of Microsoft’s under the sea data centers are environmental concerns with taking the experiment into actual deployment. The impact on underwater life of data farms on the ocean’s floors will need further examination, but the employment of green energy will be a plus.

Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss

Microsoft: Microsoft research project puts cloud in ocean for the first time
New York Times: Microsoft Plumbs Ocean’s Depths to Test Underwater Data Center
CNN Money: Microsoft just put a data center under water

Photo courtesy of Microsoft News Center

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