Microsoft's Project Natick Takes Cloud Computing Underwater

By Pedro Hernandez  |  Posted 2016-02-01 Print this article Print
underwater cloud data center

Clouds in the ocean? Microsoft is testing the feasibility of locating cloud data centers on the ocean floor.

Water and IT equipment generally don't mix. Nonetheless, that's not preventing Microsoft from floating a cloud data center in the unlikeliest of places: the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Today, the Redmond, Wash., software giant took the wraps off Project Natick, an experiment in establishing an energy-efficient, low-latency cloud computing facility on the ocean floor. Last summer, Microsoft dropped a more than 38,000-pound, 10-foot by 7-foot container more than half a mile from the Pacific coast.

Housing a server rack with the processing power of approximately 300 home PCs, the Project Natick vessel stayed underwater for three months. "Once the vessel was submerged last August, the researchers monitored the container from their offices in Building 99," blogged Microsoft spokesperson Athima Chansanchai.

Nestled in the company's Redmond, Wash., headquarters, Building 99 is home to Microsoft Research. "Using cameras and other sensors, they recorded data like temperature, humidity, the amount of power being used for the system, even the speed of the current," continued Chansanchai.

While they evoke a floaty image, cloud data centers are typically situated on land. The tactic of placing servers under the water but near the shoreline could help cloud providers solve some of the challenges of keeping up with explosive demand for their services.

"That's one of the big advantages of the underwater data center scheme—reducing latency by closing the distance to populations and thereby speeding data transmission. Half the world's population, Cutler says, lives within 120 miles of the sea, which makes it an appealing option," wrote Chansanchai, citing a statistic provided by Microsoft Research's Ben Cutler, the project manager behind the experiment.

Another benefit to underwater data centers is reduced cooling costs.

"Cooling is an important aspect of data centers, which normally run up substantial costs operating chiller plants and the like to keep the computers inside from overheating. The cold environment of the deep seas automatically makes data centers less costly and more energy-efficient," Chansanchai stated. Microsoft is also exploring the possibility of using wave or tidal energy, raising the possibility of cloud services powered by renewable energy.

Project Natick may also have an effect on data center planning. "This project also shows it's possible to deploy data centers faster, turning it from a construction project—which requires permits and other time-consuming aspects—to a manufacturing one," said Chansanchai.

In a YouTube video from Microsoft, Cutler said the project's goal is to "deploy data centers at scale, anywhere in the world, from decision to power-on within 90 days."

Suggesting that Microsoft is pleased with results of the pilot, the company is exploring an expansion of the project.

"The team is currently planning the project's next phase, which could include a vessel four times the size of the current container with as much as 20 times the compute power. The team is also evaluating test sites for the vessel, which could be in the water for at least a year, deployed with a renewable ocean energy source," Chansanchai wrote.


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