Microsoft Tests Underwater Data Center

Ben Cutler, left, and Norman Whitaker, both of Microsoft Research, with the “Leona Philpot,” a prototype underwater data center, at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. (PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Lutton for The New York Times)
Ben Cutler, left, and Norman Whitaker, both of Microsoft Research, with the “Leona Philpot,” a prototype underwater data center, at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. (PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Lutton for The New York Times)

Taking a page from Jules Verne, researchers at Microsoft believe the future of data centers may be under the sea.

Microsoft has tested a prototype of a self-contained data center that can operate hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean, eliminating one of the technology industry’s most expensive problems: the air conditioning bill.

Today’s data centers, which power everything from streaming video to social networking and email, contain thousands of computer servers generating lots of heat. When there is too much heat, the servers crash.

Putting the gear under cold ocean water could fix the problem. It may also answer the exponentially growing energy demands of the computing world because Microsoft is considering pairing the system with a turbine that generates electricity from ocean tides.

The effort, code-named Project Natick, might lead to strands of giant steel tubes linked by fiber optic cables placed on the seafloor. Another possibility would suspend containers shaped like jelly beans beneath the surface to capture the ocean current with turbines that generate electricity.

“When I first heard about this I thought, ‘Water … electricity, why would you do that?’ ” said Ben Cutler, a Microsoft computer designer who is one of the engineers who worked on the Project Natick system. “But as you think more about it, it actually makes a lot of sense.”

Such a radical idea could run into stumbling blocks, of course, as varied as environmental concerns or unforeseen technical issues. But the Microsoft researchers believe that by mass producing the capsules, they could shorten the deployment time of new data centers from the two years it now takes on land to just 90 days, offering a huge cost advantage.

The underwater server containers could also help make web services work faster. Much of the world’s population now lives in urban centers close to oceans but far away from data centers usually built in out-of-the-way places with lots of room. The ability to place computing power near users lowers the delay, or latency, people experience, which is a big issue for web users.

“For years, the main cloud providers have been seeking sites around the world not only for green energy but which also take advantage of the environment,” said Larry Smarr, a physicist and scientific computing specialist who is director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at the University of California, San Diego.

Driven by technologies as varied as digital entertainment and the rapid arrival of the so-called Internet of Things, the demand for centralized computing has been growing exponentially. Microsoft manages more than 100 data centers around the globe and is adding more at a rapid clip. The company has spent more than $15 billion on a global data center system that now provides more than 200 online services.

In 2014, engineers in a branch of Microsoft Research known as New Experiences and Technologies, or NExT, began thinking about a novel approach to sharply speed up the process of adding new power to so-called cloud computing systems.

“When you pull out your smartphone you think you’re using this miraculous little computer, but actually you’re using more than 100 computers out in this thing called the cloud,” said Peter Lee, corporate vice president for Microsoft Research and the NExT organization. “And then you multiply that by billions of people and that’s just a huge amount of computing work.”

The company recently completed a 105-day trial of a steel capsule — eight feet in diameter — that was placed 30 feet underwater in the Pacific Ocean off the Central California coast near San Luis Obispo. Controlled from offices here on the Microsoft campus, the trial proved more successful than was originally expected.

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SOURCE: NY Times, John Markoff