Microsoft Tests Datacenters – At the Bottom of the Ocean Floor


Tech giant Microsoft has sunk an entire data center off the coast of Scotland. The goal, it says, is to speed the transfer of data as well as to cut down on operational costs.

“For true delivery of AI, we are really cloud dependent today,” said Peter Lee, corporate vice president of Microsoft AI and Research. “If we can be within one internet hop of everyone, then it not only benefits our products, but also the products our customers serve.”

More than half of the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the coast, Microsoft points out. Putting datacenters near coastal cities shortens the distance, and time, data has to travel. That shortened distance results in an enhanced user experience, creating for example, faster and smoother Internet surfing, video and audio streaming and AI-driven technologies.

It also saves a lot of energy.

Datacenters, large rooms filled with hundreds of computer servers require a large amount of energy to operate. Energy is required to keep the machines running but also to keep the room cool, a requirement for computer servers. Cooling at the bottom of the sea is much more efficient, and less expensive, than cooling on land.

The idea behind Microsoft’s initiative, dubbed Project Natick, is to manufacture and operate environmentally sustainable, prepackaged datacenters that can be custom built, deployed rapidly and operate with no maintenance under the sea for years.

Datacenters are quickly becoming critical pieces of IT infrastructure. Demand for datacenters is growing exponentially as corporations shift their data storage and computing needs to the cloud, and intelligent devices such as smartphones and robots become ubiquitous.

“When you are in this kind of exponential growth curve, it tells you that most of the datacenters that we’ll ever build we haven’t built yet,” said Ben Cutler, a Microsoft project manager who leads Project Natick.

The vessel, a forty-foot long white cylinder, was towed out to sea near Scotland’s Orkney Islands. It was then submerged between the pontoons of a large barge resembling a catamaran. At the submersion site, a remotely operated vehicle brought a fiber optic cable that will power the center from the seafloor to the surface. It was attached to the datacenter and the datacenter was powered on.

The center is loaded with twelve racks containing a total of 864 servers and a cooling system. It’s got enough storage space to store five million movies, and is designed to operate maintenance free for up to five years.

Photo by Microsoft

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