Microsoft's undersea data center uses the ocean to keep its cool

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The Project Natick vessel – named Leona Philpot, after a character in the game Halo – is lowered into the Pacific(Credit: Microsoft)

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Although many people may think that cloud computing exists purely in cyberspace, it does in fact have a physical home – data centers located around the world, each one full of linked servers. These data centers use a lot of power, they create a lot of heat, and it helps if they're close to populated areas. While we've already seen some creative approaches to meeting these needs, Microsoft recently announced that it's tried something else yet … it anchored an unmanned data center to the bottom of the sea.

Called Project Natick, the 2015 experiment involved housing a data center inside a watertight 38,000-lb (17,237-kg) cylindrical vessel measuring approximately 10 x 7 feet (3 x 2 m). Anchored over half a mile (0.8 km) off the US Pacific coast, the unit used as much computing power as 300 desktop PCs.

It spent three months underwater starting last August, run and monitored from shore by remote control. All of its cooling needs were met simply by the cold seawater surrounding it, which drew heat away through heat exchangers on the vessel's outer steel shell. Although it was powered by the local electrical grid, such underwater data centers could conceivably be run off of renewable sources such as wave or tidal power.

A server rack is installed within the Project Natick vessel(Credit: Microsoft)

Given that much of the world's population lives in coastal areas, undersea data centers could be located close to the people using them, without taking up space on land. This is an important consideration, as internet latency times increase with distance from data centers.

Additionally, the Project Natick vessel took only 90 days to build, then was operational almost as soon as it was submerged and powered up – no buildings needed to be constructed.

Plans now call for another trial, in which a vessel four times as large may spend an entire year underwater. It will have 20 times the compute power of the current version, and may be powered by renewable sources. Ultimately, it is hoped that such data centers could remain submerged for five years at a time.

More information on Project Natick is available in the video below.

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