Up from the depths, 864 servers inside, covered in slime, it's Natick!

Microsoft went to sea, sea, sea to see what it could see, see, see...

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Microsoft has hauled its data centre in a box, Natick, up from the seabed and concluded that data is indeed better, down where it's wetter, under the sea.

The results have been a long time coming. Project Natick kicked off back in 2013 and a prototype of the underwater data centre was dunked in the Pacific, off California, back in 2015. So successful was the scaled-down version that the gang built a bigger pressure vessel, measuring 12.2m by 2.8m, and stuffed it with 12 racks containing 864 of Clippyzilla's servers.

The canned data centre was then dropped 117 feet to the sea floor off Scotland's Orkney Islands in 2018 to prove the concept.

Skip forward two years, and the algae-coated container, replete with the odd barnacle and sea anemone, has been hauled back up to see what sort of state it is in. Certainly, the hardware within has kept humming along, free of human interaction, to the point where it was pressed into service earlier this year for Folding@home's effort to understand the viral proteins that cause COVID-19.

The target lifespan of a Natick data centre was 20 years back when the phase 2 prototype was plopped into the sea off Orkney. Over the last two years, researchers have seen a failure rate of an eighth of that seen in a control group of servers on land, running the same workloads.

Land-based data centres suffer from pesky humans insisting on pottering around in them, as well as fluctuating temperatures and the odd lightning bolt. An underwater pressure vessel is therefore the ultimate in meatbag-free operations. Up until Jeff Bezos decides to launch an AWS node into orbit, natch.

As for what makes the servers more reliable than a lights-out data centre, the team theorised that the atmosphere of nitrogen used in the pressure vessel (coupled with the lack of human jostling) makes for a considerably more benign environment. Only a "handful" of servers failed during the experiment.

Power for Natick came from the 100 per cent wind and solar power grid available in the Orkney Islands, and cooling from the sea water. Microsoft told The Register that the water returned to the ocean was "a fraction of a degree warmer than ambient".

It added: "Due to rapid mixing in ocean currents, the temperature impact just a few meters downstream of the datacenter is undetectable."

As for the future, Microsoft told us that while Project Natick was purely a research effort, it planned to use the lessons learned in future data centres. Early conversations are centred on cramming the full suite of Azure services into similar containers and linking dozens of the things together.

Spencer Fowers, a principal member of technical staff for Microsoft's Special Projects research group, remarked that the company was "seeing more and more need to have smaller data centers located closer to customers instead of these large warehouse data centers out in the middle of nowhere."

More a shoal than a cloud, perhaps. ®

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