Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Microsoft Launches Submersible Datacenter 

The hotspots and energy hogs that are enterprise datacenters are increasingly located in northern climes. As demand for cooling intensifies, and datacenter power usage maxes out, some have even proposed floating datacenters that can tap sea water for cooling.

Now, Microsoft Research is floating a green concept for a “self-sustaining underwater datacenter” as a way to conserve energy while moving data closer to users, many of whom live on the coasts.

Dubbed “Project Natick,” a YouTube video of the datacenter initiative posted by Microsoft Research surfaced—or should we say submerged—this week.

“It’s kind of a far-out idea,” acknowledges Peter Lee, a Microsoft Research vice president, “but highly relevant to the future of Microsoft.”

The cloud vendor (NASDAQ: MSFT) said the Project Natick is driven by the growing number of interactive cloud applications, such as augmented and virtual reality. The idea is to bring the Azure cloud closer to its customers, added Ben Cutler, manager of Project Natick.

The rationale behind the data submersible is straightforward: 50 percent of humans live near coastlines. “Why doesn’t our data?” company researchers note.

Microsoft's submersible datacenter heads to sea.

The data submarine consists of an outer pressure vessel surrounding an “internal payload” that includes servers, racks and additional datacenter gear.

Project Natick leverages submarine technology, and Microsoft said it is working with marine energy experts on the second phase of its “moonshot to develop self-sufficient underwater datacenters that can deliver rapid and agile cloud services to coastal cities.”

Company researchers working with European partners recently deployed a “full-scale datacenter module” in the North Sea designed to be powered by a combination solar, wind and offshore tidal and wave energy. “This is a true, lights-out datacenter,” said Eric Peterson, a Microsoft datacenter engineer. “We’re gonna do it and see what happens.”

“Just being able to order precisely the amount of datacenter capacity you need and have it delivered to you—that is the concept that we dream about with Project Natick,” said Lee.

Another impetus for green datacenter projects is a critical metric called power usage effectiveness, or PUE. Industry analysts note that PUE has hit a wall, spurring radical designs such as Project Natick. Another is a floating datacenter from a startup called Nautilus Data Technologies. Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) initially proposed the concept, which it tried to patent in 2007. In 2015, Nautilus, Pleasanton, Calif., began building the first commercial "data barge" based on a prototype moored off the Mare Island Naval Complex north of San Francisco.

Then there is the question of cooling. According to the web site Data Center Frontier, Microsoft partner Naval Goup adapted a heat exchange process used to cool submarines by piping seawater through radiators on the back of 12 server racks, then released the water from the module.

Project Natick servers being fitted inside a pressure vessel.

Microsoft’s data sub includes 12 racks containing 864 servers with 27.6 petabytes of disk storage. Power consumption is estimated to be 240 kW, all generated by on-shore wind and solar along with off-shore tide and wave power.

“What about maintenance?” asked one YouTube viewer. Good question.

Microsoft said its new underwater datacenter designated “Northern Isles” is designed to operate without maintenance for up to five years. No word yet on whether system administrators will require scuba gear.

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).

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