“50% of us live near the coast,” Microsoft says. “Why doesn’t our data?”
Building huge data centres underwater might sound bizarrely Jules Vernesian, but it’s exactly what Microsoft’s testing. The plan’s called Project Natick, and its website states its purpose: “to understand the benefits and difficulties in deploying subsea data centres worldwide.”
Why build data centres underwater? Customer proximity, for one. Since so many large cities are coastal, building cloud computing data centres in the nearby bodies of water (as opposed to in the middle of nowhere, as is usually the case) could improve the performance of services like Netflix for millions of urbanites. Plus, putting servers underwater basically eliminates the possibility that they will crash due to overheating. And finally, Microsoft suggests it can pair the underwater data centres with tide-powered electrical generators or turbines, which could help address increasing energy demands.
The first prototype is called Leona Philpot (after the Halo character who appears on Microsoft’s Xboxes) was tested last spring about a kilometre off the California coast, 9m under water. The test enclosed a single data centre computing rack in an 2.5m-wide steel capsule, which was covered in sensors that monitored pressure, humidity and other factors that helped the engineers learn more about possible challenges they will face in the future.
In December, after a series of successful tests, it was shipped back to Microsoft HQ in Redmond, Washington for analysis. Microsoft thinks it can install underwater data centres faster than it can build ones on land — 90 days versus two years.
I can’t imagine that there won’t be any environmentalist concern on this one. The reasoning behind the project is pretty logical, though, assuming the “subsea data centres” work like they’re supposed to — and it sounds like the prototype did just fine. The next trial will use a capsule three times larger than the Leona and is scheduled to take the plunge next year.
GIF via Microsoft Research YouTube