Microsoft sinks data centres for Project Natick

February 1, 2016 | 14:46

Tags: #datacentre #data-centre #undersea

Companies: #microsoft #microsoft-research

Microsoft has unveiled a project to reduce the environmental impact of its data centres, by placing them underwater: Project Natick.

Part of the company's work under the Microsoft Research arm and named for a town in Massachusetts, Natick aims to sink future data centres to the bottom of the sea - a move which, the company claims, has considerable benefits. A Natick data centre, Microsoft has stated, would be built from recycled and recyclable materials, could be paired with offshore renewable energy sources for zero-emission operation, operate lights-out for four five-year lifespans, and consume no water for cooling or any other purpose.

Those are all sound environmental benefits, but Microsoft's claims go still further. A Natick data centre, the company continues, could be constructed and deployed within 90 days and offer greatly reduced latency to clients that live within 200 kilometres of an ocean - around half the world's population.

Each Natick data centre, Microsoft explains, would operate for around five years before the computers contained within would require upgrading. At this point, the data centre would be retrieved from the ocean floor, refitted with new systems, and sunk again for another five-year stretch. After three such refreshes, the Natick module would have reached the end of its 20-year lifespan, and the materials used to construct it would be recycled.

The project is the brainchild of former US Navy submariner Sean James, who published a white paper on the topic in 2013. Microsoft Research began bringing James' vision to life in 2013, deploying the first module - the Leona Philpot, named somewhat darkly for a character in the Halo franchise who broke her neck while diving into a pool - in August 2015. After four months of testing, the module was retrieved and brought back to Microsoft's headquarters for analysis and refitting.

While the test, carried out by team members Eric Peterson, Spencer Fowers, Norm Whitaker, Ben Cutler, and Jeff Kramer, was successful, Microsoft is honest about the status of the project. 'Project Natick is currently at the research stage,' the company explains in response to queries as to when Natick may hit the open market, or even see production use within Microsoft. 'It’s still early days in evaluating whether this concept could be adopted by Microsoft and other cloud service providers.'

More information on Project Natick is available on the official website, which also contains a bold prediction regarding the end of Moore's Law and a subsequent expansion in the lifespan of Natick-deployed server hardware.
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