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Microsoft Reveals Prototype Underwater Datacenter

Microsoft today has revealed a research project that shows promise for submerging and operating a cloud-scale datacenter in the ocean.

The experimental datacenter, dubbed Project Natick, was submerged into the Pacific Ocean about a half-mile off the coast from August to November of last year. Enclosed in a special 38,000-pound container that looks like a small submarine, the datacenter had the CPU power of 300 desktop PCs and validated the potential of developing the technology at a much higher scale. The researchers conducting last year's pilot called the container Leona Philpot, the name of the popular Xbox character.

Project Natick received sponsorship as a result of Microsoft's quest to develop datacenters that can be easily provisioned, are low cost and environmentally sustainable, according to the company, which emphasized the fact that 50 percent of the world's population lives near a major body of water. Not only would an underwater datacenter have significantly less power and cooling requirements thanks to the cold temperature and the ocean's potential to generate renewable energy, but it would provide a lower-cost way of delivering datacenter capacity quicker, while providing greater proximity to users.

"Project Natick is a radical approach to how we deploy datacenters," said Ben Cutler, the Microsoft Research project manager in a short video released today showing how it was developed and submerged (it's less than 3 minutes and worth viewing). "Basically what we're doing is we're taking green datacenters [and] deploying them in the ocean [and] off the coast. The overall goal here is to deploy datacenters at scale anywhere in the world -- from decision to power-on within 90 days."

During the video, Eric Peterson, a Microsoft mechanical architect, noted that Project Natick is based on traditional servers "you would find in any datacenter that have been modified for this particular environment since it's in a marine situation." Jeff Kramer, a Microsoft research engineer on the project, added that the servers have the cooling system attached to the outside via special tubing designed to withstand the underwater conditions.

"There's all the control electronics that live on the outside of the rack and then as you move further out you get to the steel shell outside [where] we have all of the heat exchangers that are attached to that shell as well as the outputs for all of the cable and we go back to the surface," Kramer said. "It's kind of like launching a satellite to space: once you've built it, you hand it to the guys with the rocket -- in our case, a crane. You can't do anything about it if it screws up."

According to a FAQ, a Natick datacenter is expected to last for five years, which is consistent with the lifespan of most computers and related gear. Every five years the datacenter would be removed from the ocean, new infrastructure added and then submerged again. Each datacenter would have a target lifespan of at least 20 years, according to Microsoft. Once taken out of commissioned, it would be recycled.

As for when, and in what form, Project Natick will be available, Microsoft emphasized that it is too early to determine if and when that will happen.

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 02/01/2016 at 12:41 PM


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