Microsoft has come up with a radical new way to store data – 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 either with a turbine or a tidal energy system to generate electricity.
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.
“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 expected.
The researchers had worried about hardware failures and leaks. The underwater system was outfitted with 100 different sensors to measure pressure, humidity, motion and other conditions to better understand what it is like to operate in an environment where it is impossible to send a repairman in the middle of the night.
The system held up. That led the engineers to extend the time of the experiment and to even run commercial data-processing projects from Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing service.
The research group has started designing an underwater system that will be three times as large. It will be built in collaboration with a yet-to-be-chosen developer of an ocean-based alternative-energy system. The Microsoft engineers said they expected a new trial to begin next year, possibly near Florida or in Northern Europe, where there are extensive ocean energy projects underway.
The first prototype, affectionately named Leona Philpot — a character in Microsoft’s Halo video game series — has been returned, partly covered with barnacles, to the company’s corporate campus here.
It is a large white steel tube, covered with heat exchangers, with its ends sealed by metal plates and large bolts. Inside is a single data center computing rack that was bathed in pressurized nitrogen to efficiently remove heat from computing chips while the system was tested on the ocean floor.
The idea for the underwater system came from a research paper written in 2014 by several Microsoft data center employees, including one with experience on a Navy submarine.
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