Earlier this week, Microsoft announced the second phase of the Natick Project, a research experiment that aims to understand the benefits and challenges of implementing large-scale data centers underwater. In this second phase, the team sank a tank the size of a shipping container with numerous server racks off the coast of the Orkney Islands and plans to keep it there for a few years to see if this is a viable way to implement data centers in the future.
Computers and water, as is well known, do not mix, like anyone who has ever spilled a cup of water on a laptop, so putting server racks underwater probably seems like a strange idea. But as Ben Cutler of Microsoft Research told me, there are good reasons to explain why the bottom of the ocean can be a good place to install servers.
The vast majority of people live less than 200 kilometers from the ocean, Cutler said, and Microsoft’s cloud strategy has long focused on bringing its data centers closer to major population centers. So, with large offshore wind farms that potentially provide renewable energy and the obvious cooling benefits of being underwater (and cooling is an important cost factor for data centers), testing an experiment like this makes sense.
“Within Microsoft, we have spent a huge amount of energy and time in the cloud, and obviously money,” Cutler explained when I asked him about the genesis of this project. “So we’re always looking for new ways we can innovate.” And this idea was originally formed with one of our employees who worked on a submarine in the US Navy. UU And I knew something about this technology, and that this could apply to data centers. “
So in 2013, the team launched the first phase and launched a small pressure vessel with some servers to the waters of the Pacific Ocean. That experiment worked quite well. Even the local marine life seemed to appreciate it. The team discovered that the boat did not heat the water near it by more than a few thousandths of a degree Celsius more than a few feet beyond. The noise, too, was quite insignificant. “We discovered that, once we were a few meters away from the boat, we were drowned out by the background noise, which is like clicking the shrimp, which is actually the predominant sound of the ocean,” Cutler told me, and stressed that the Team work is to measure all this since the ocean is obviously a very sensitive environment. “What we discovered is that we are very well received by wildlife and very quickly we are colonized by crabs, octopus and other things that were in the area.”
For this second phase, the team decided the location near the coast of Scotland because it also houses the European Center for Marine Energy, so the infrastructure to feed the vessel with renewable energy sources from land and land sources was already in operation .
Once the ship is in the ocean, maintenance is practically impossible. The idea here is to accept that things will fail and can not be replaced. Then, after some years, the plan is to recover the ship, recondition it with new machines and deploy it again.
But as part of this experiment, the team also thought about how to make these servers last as long as possible, and since no one has to replace a broken hard drive inside the ship, the team decided to fill the atmosphere with nitrogen to avoid corrosion, example. To measure the impact of that experiment, Microsoft also maintains a similar ship on the ground so it can compare how well it works over time.
Cutler emphasized that nothing here is cutting-edge technology. Here there are no exotic servers and both submarine wiring and construction vessels like this are well understood at this time.
With time, Cutler foresees a factory that can prefabricate these ships and send them where they are needed. That is why the ship is the size of a shipping container and the equipment actually manufactured it in France, loaded it in a truck and sent it to England to test this logistics chain.
It remains to be seen if that happens, of course. The team is studying Natick’s economics for the time being, and then it’s up to the Microsoft Azure team to get this out of the research labs and put it into a more widespread production. “Our goal here is to bring this to a point where we understand that the economy makes sense and that it has the characteristics we wanted, and then it becomes a tool for that group of products to decide whether to use it or not,” Cutler said.
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