Data Centered: Microsoft’s Subsea Data Center Experiment

September 29, 2016 at 2:56 pm  •  Posted in Data Communications  •  0 Comments

In the quest to offset cooling costs, the big data dynamos are getting pretty creative.

According to CNET, Facebook moved one of its data centers to the Arctic Circle in search of greener (and cooler) pastures. To cut data center energy bills, Google is turning to artificial intelligence, The Verge reports.

But could Davy Jones’ locker hold the future of data? Microsoft thinks so. In search of that cooling sweet spot, Microsoft has released the Kraken of data: Project Natick. Grab your snorkeling gear, folks: today we dive headfirst into Microsoft’s subsea data center experiment.

The Idea

According to The Verge, Project Natick was set into motion after a Microsoft data center employee—who had worked on a Navy submarine—co-authored a whitepaper on the topic. But for a project of this nature, an idea wasn’t impetus alone; the logic had to stack up too.

“Half of the world’s population lives within two kilometers of the sea, so moving a data center under the ocean made a great amount of sense,” said Jeff Kramer, Research Engineer for Project Natick. “Natick could have a lot of impact, both currently and in the future.”

The goal of Project Natick is to harness “green energy” to reduce data center cooling, repair, and maintenance costs. Here’s what the Project Natick team has to say about the mechanics of the first subsea data center, and what this could mean for the future of data.

Watch the Project Natick video.

The Project

To gain a better understanding of the benefits and challenges of subsea data centers, Microsoft designed, built, and deployed their own subsea data center in about a year. In February of this year, the data mega giant unveiled project Natick, the world’s first marine data center.

“Project Natick is a radical approach to how we deploy data centers. [Microsoft] is taking green data centers and deploying them in the ocean. The goal is to deploy data centers, at scale, anywhere in the world, from decision to power-on within 90 days.” – Ben Cutler, Project Manager

According to the Project Natick website, Microsoft’s subsea data center consists of:

  • Regular servers that have been adapted to function in a marine environment
  • A coolant system that’s attached to the outside of the server
  • Electronic controls that live on the outside of the rack
  • An external steel shell
  • Heat-exchangers and outputs for cabling that goes back to the surface

According to a New York Times feature, Project Natick’s eight-foot subsea capsule—named after Leona Philpot, a Halo video game character—was placed 30 feet underwater off the Pacific Coast of Central California for 105 days.

Leona was equipped with sensors that tracked motion, humidity, pressure, and other conditions to, in the words of John Markoff of The New York Times, “better understand what it is like to operate in an environment where it is impossible to send a repairman in the middle of the night.” (Can you imagine getting that call?)

The Results

The Verge asked, “Is data better down where it’s wetter?” and the verdict is still out. But Microsoft might be on to something.

The Project Natick team was concerned about leaks and hardware failures, but, despite attracting a few barnacles, Leona fared better than expected. According to The New York Times, Microsoft was also concerned about the impact to fragile underwater environments, but “the clicking of the shrimp that swam next to the system drowned out any noise created by the container.”

The Verge reports that Microsoft is already working on an underwater system that’s triple the size of the Leona Philpot, with trials expected to begin in 2017.

As data centers grow in scale and complexity, there’s no doubt we’ll see more unique formats emerge. So far, we’ve dabbled with artificial intelligence, trekked into the Arctic, and plunged into the briny deep.

What’s next? I’d say “let’s shoot for the stars and land on the moon,” but I wonder if that’s Microsoft’s next stop anyways… Only time will tell.

Over to You

Join the conversation by leaving a comment below, or connecting with us on Twitter @GraybarESP or on Facebook.

Sources & Credits
The Verge: Google uses DeepMind AI to cut data center energy bills
CNET: Facebook turns on data center at edge of the Arctic Circle
The Verge: Microsoft is experimenting with underwater data centers
YouTube: Microsoft’s underwater datacenter: Project Natick
Microsoft: Project Natick
The New York Times: Microsoft Plumbs Ocean’s Depths to Test Underwater Data Center


Todd Reed, National Market ManagerAbout The Author
Todd Reed, National Market Manager

As National Market Manager at Graybar, Todd’s goal is to find the best products and solutions to help contractors work more efficiently, stay safe on the job, and win more productive and profitable business.

Leave a Reply