Posey's Tips & Tricks

Microsoft's Hands-Off Underwater Datacenter Is Crazy Enough To Work

If Microsoft can run its massive, land-bound datacenters with almost no tech staff, the idea of letting a submerged datacenter operate for five years without any direct human contact seems at least plausible.

Every once in a while, an IT project catches my attention because it is so far outside of the norm.

Recently, for example, Microsoft has been experimenting with operating datacenters beneath the ocean.

The idea of operating data systems beneath the sea is nothing new. Submarine crews do it all the time. Likewise, next spring I am tentatively going to be spending a significant amount of time working in an undersea lab either in the Florida Keys or in Hawaii in preparation for a space mission.

Even so, there is one thing that makes Microsoft's underwater datacenter, dubbed "Project Natick," far different from existing undersea labs: It's designed to be completely autonomous.

The short explanation of the project is that Microsoft had created a cylindrical datacenter that is roughly about the size of a bus (40 feet), loaded it up with 864 servers and all of the infrastructure that is required to support those servers, and then submerged it under 117 feet of water off the coast of Scotland.

When I first heard about the underwater datacenter project, I probably had the same reaction as everyone else. My first thought was to wonder how the datacenter would be maintained. After all, the datacenter is completely enclosed and is not intended to be serviced by divers, and presumably some maintenance will occasionally be needed. Hard drives may need to be replaced or power may need to be cycled.

According to Microsoft, however, the datacenters are designed to operate for up to five years without the need for any sort of hands-on maintenance.

The idea of a hands-off datacenter probably isn't as crazy as it sounds. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to an undisclosed location and take a tour of one of Microsoft's datacenters. One of the things that really struck me about the Microsoft datacenter was its lack of staff. Here is an excerpt from the column that I wrote shortly after my datacenter tour:

In spite of its huge, sprawling size, the inside of the datacenter felt like a ghost town. Security aside, there was almost no one in the datacenter. Of course this totally makes sense when you stop and think about it. It would be nearly impossible to manually manage the systems within a facility of that size. As such, the management and monitoring is entirely automated. Sure, there are some tech people working at the datacenter, but there aren't many.

The point is that if Microsoft can operate such a massive datacenter with almost no tech staff, then the idea of allowing a submerged datacenter to operate for five years without any direct human contact seems at least plausible. I am guessing, however, that when the time does come to do maintenance, it will be an extensive process that will take the entire datacenter offline for a period of time.

Putting the logistics of operating an underwater datacenter aside, I think that a bigger question might be: Why put a datacenter on the bottom of the ocean in the first place?

The way that it was explained to me was that the vast majority of the world's population centers are in relatively close proximity to the coast. Putting datacenters just offshore puts cloud resources in geographically close proximity to the people who are using them, thereby reducing cloud latency.

I am totally speculating here, but I am guessing that if Microsoft has realized the need for more localized coverage, then it has also realized how much it would cost to build a datacenter in some of those areas. Imagine the cost, for example, if you had to build a brand-new datacenter in an area such as Tokyo or San Francisco. Placing self-contained datacenters at the bottom of the ocean is sure to save Microsoft a fortune in real estate acquisition costs.

It will also have eliminated many concerns pertaining to physical security. I remember a speaker at a tech conference once saying that if you really want to keep your data secure, lock it in a safe and put the safe at the bottom of the ocean. That's essentially what Microsoft has done. The datacenter is bolted closed. It doesn't even have a door.

Maybe it's because I am an avid scuba diver and spend a lot of time underwater, but I find Microsoft's underwater datacenter project fascinating. You can read more about it here.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 19-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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