Microsoft has built an underwater data centre

1 Feb 2016

Microsoft has designed, built and deployed a data centre that can operate under the sea.

You’ve heard the term oceans of data, but Microsoft is taking it quite literally with Project Natick, a bold plan that has seen it design, build and deploy a data centre that can operate under the sea.

In a concept that Jules Verne would be proud of, Microsoft has tested a prototype of a self-contained data centre under the working title Project Natick that can operate hundreds of feet under the surface of the ocean.

The purpose is, ultimately, to reduce the cost of the most expensive part of running a data centre, the cooling bill.

The project kicked off in 2013, when Microsoft employee Sean James, a former US Navy submariner, suggested putting entire data centres underwater.

By August 2014, Microsoft had built the Leona Philpot, named after a character in the Halo video game franchise.

The project is, however, quite rudimentary and, by data centre standards, the Leona Philpot is quite small. It is a 38,000-pound container, 10 feet by seven feet.

A thousand data feeds under the sea

“The shrimp exploring the seafloor made more noise than the data centre inside the container, which consumed computing power equivalent to 300 desktop PCs,” Microsoft said.

“But the knowledge gained from the three months this vessel was underwater could help make future data centres more sustainable, while at the same time speeding data transmission and cloud deployment.

“And yes, maybe even someday, data centres could become commonplace in seas around the world.”

The project gained pace when James, a research programme manager for the Data Centre Advanced Dev team at Microsoft, published an article for ThinkWeek, an event that encourages Microsoft employees to share potentially transformative ideas.

“What helped me bridge the gap between data centres and underwater is that I’d seen how you can put sophisticated electronics under water, and keep it shielded from salt water. It goes through a very rigorous testing and design process. So I knew there was a way to do that.”

Microsoft believes that some day vast fleets of these underwater data centres could serve the world, especially considering half the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the sea.

The submarine data centre was deployed in a single day and monitored remotely at Microsoft’s Redmond HQ.

A diver would go down once a month to check the vessel but the device remained remotely connected, even when a small tsunami wave passed.

“This is speculative technology, in the sense that if it turns out to be a good idea, it will instantly change the economics of this business,” said Norm Whitaker, who heads special projects for Microsoft Research NExT.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years