Microsoft’s Project Natick resurfaced after two years and confirms the feasibility of underwater data centers

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Harsirat Kaur
Harsirat Kaur
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Microsft’s Project Natick came as big news back in 2018 when the company announced that the data centers in water may be a better option. The Natick Project is Microsoft’s underwater experiment to test data centers. These underwater centers are not like our earthly ones. They run on the power of marine energies and they don’t heat up as the seawater cools them down. Microsoft has more than 100 data centers across the world. Their recent endeavor in collaboration with the Naval Group may mark the rise of a whole new chapter in the data world. On June 5, 2018, Microsoft and Naval Group submerged their first submarine server into the Orkney Islands in Scotland. Why only these islands? These islands have a special feature which is that they are also a project in the test phase of a renewable energy center.

The tagline of the experiment as Microsft uses is “50 percent of us live near the coast, why doesn’t our data?”

Microsoft’s Project Natick, in its own words, is “A research project to determine the feasibility of subsea datacenters powered by offshore renewable energy.”

Microsoft's Project Natick may be a gift to the future
Project Natick, Vessel retrieval Stromness, Orkney. Microsoft – Tuesday 7th to Wednesday 15th of July 2020

The aim of this underwater experiment

Data centers are such crucial storage units. They store information in their computing cloud. The idea came from the brain of Peter Lee. He said that a single mobile phone can power up to 100 computers and multiplying hundreds can heat up the entire database, so there must be something to tackle it. Peter Lee, Vice president of Microsft Research stated that one of the main objectives is to reduce the cost associated with cooling off the heated data centers. The solution, which, he and his team saw underwater.

Another objective is to make the underwater data centers close to the population so that they can increase web service. The physical distance on land is also a hindrance, however, water may solve it. This will fasten up the latency period. This is how Microsft’s Project Natick came to life. The project seeks to understand the benefits and obstacles in deploying underwater data centers.

How does Microsoft’s Project Natick Phase 1 differ from Phase 2?

Microsoft held phase 1 back in 2015. In this, a team of researchers made an underwater data center named Leona Philpot. The experiment lasted for 105 days. The location was not in Scotland but the central California coast. When after 105 days, the submarine reached the surface, the data was taken for its analysis. However, the reliability of the system came out as the main drawback. There were leaks in the center, which made it difficult for data restoration.

Consequently, the researchers equipped Leona Philpot with 100 different sensors, made a data center four times the size of the previous, and the time span they estimated for its stay underwater was five years. Phase 2 started at the beginning of June 2018. The Center involved ‘the European Marin Energy Center’ has its location in Orkney. The new data center had its dimensions of 12.2m by 3.2m, containing 864 serves and made up of twelve racks. Phase 2 extends the line of approach because Microsft deployed a full-scale datacenter.

The findings of Microsft’s Project Natick Phase 2.

This summer, marine workers pushed upwards a huge submarine data center covered in algae, barnacles, and sea anemones from Scotland’s Orkney Islands. The findings of this data center and its duration subsea came out as exactly Microsft hoped. According to the compnay, Microsft’s Project Natick and its data centers’ experiment is “feasible, as well environmentally, enviromentally and economically practical.

The two years during which the data center laid underwater, the team members were hard at work testing and monitoring their performance. The team’s experimental theory is that a sealed container subsea may help in improving the overall reliability of the data centers. The main takeaway from is that the danger of corrosion from humidity and temperature fluctuations of land apparatus is not something we will see in underwater data centers. Consequently, The Northern Isles Department said that such implications are not possible to occur subsea.

Azure, along with Micrsft is planning to deploy and operate these data centers all across the world. William Chappell, Vice President of mission systems for Azure said, “We’re populating the globe with edge devices, big or small. To learn how to make data centers reliable enough not to need human touch is a dream of ours.”

The process undertaken after Microsoft’s Project Natick submarine was reeled out

The data center was manufactured by Naval Group and its Naval energies, which are experts in marine renewable energy. Other than Microsft and Naval Group, an Orkney Island-based firm, Green Marine, also helped in the deployment of the data center base. The process to place and deploy it needed some prerequisites, like a calm sea and perfect pontoons of the gantry barge. When the prerequisites were met, the workers deployed the base into the sea. When it came out, it had layers of algae and other sea growing organisms. Spencer Fowers, a principal member of technical staff said, “We were pretty impressed with how clean it was. I did not have a lot of hardened marine growth on it, it was mostly sea scum.”

Microsoft's Project Natick may be a gift to the future
Project Natick, Vessel retrieval Stromness, Orkney. Microsoft – Tuesday 7th to Wednesday 15th of July 2020

The submarine had nitrogen gas in it which made its temperature temperate. So, once it came out it wasn’t a huge shock to the land inhabitants. After unbolting the endcap and the server racks, Fowers and his team started assessing the viabl9ty.

The future of this experiment

Fowers said, “We are like ‘hey this looks good’. We have to figure out what exactly gives us this benefit.”

The economic model that the researchers have planned has a failure rate of one-eighth than what is on land. Microsoft’s Project Natick emphasizes on making these date centers sustainably. They are thinking of co-locating the underwater data center with an offshore windfarm. The sustainability will also save up the hassle involves with replacement. To sum it up, Fowers said, “As we are moving from generic cloud computing to cloud and edge computing, we are seeing more and more need to have smaller data centers located closer to customers instead of these large warehouse data centers.”

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