Microsoft’s new scheme, Project Natick isn’t about a new two-in-one tablet or piece of clever software, but is instead looking to revolutionize the data center, by considering whether putting them on-land in the first place was a huge mistake. What if, instead, we put them under water?
While the idea might seem like something out of science-fiction, the realities of water-bound computing, especially on a large scale, are very positive. The remote nature of such a facility would mean it would require fewer on-site staff, it would be naturally resistant to weather and the environment, possibly even more so than solid ground structures, and perhaps most importantly, would require almost no active cooling.
Keeping a data center at a chilly operational temperature is one of the biggest challenges for modern operators, with the likes of Facebook looking to innovate by only using renewable energy and recycled waste heat. But putting a data center under the sea could be much more efficient, as it would require no energy to cool at all.
Although still in the testing phase of its life-cycle, Project Natick has already seen a real world trial. Microsoft built a prototype known as Leona Philpot, named after an obscure Halo character, and placed it 30ft below the surface just off of the California coast in 2015 and left it there for four months.
It survived perfectly well. A battery of tests were run during its operation and that’s given Microsoft plenty of data to run with to aide further developments.
Microsoft says the underwater data centers are built to last up to twenty years, though they have an anticipated real lifespan of five years. Their replacement would likely be the result of a need to upgrade the hardware inside, rather than damage or failure.
These data centers could be located much closer to the people and businesses who are storing data on those servers, too (half the world’s population lives near a coast, but land-based data centers are often inland, to avoid hurricanes and other such disasters), making them more responsive and quicker to access.
While some have speculated that such an intrusion into an underwater environment could disturb local flora and fauna, Microsoft assures us that it did not take local fish and other marine life long to adjust, quickly adapting the data center into their habitat. Microsoft did only place one into the sea, however — presumably, switching to these data centers on a wide scale would require the deployment of hundreds, even thousands.
Microsoft’s idea does seem to have its benefits, but at this point, it’s really a proof of concept. Microsoft itself is now a major cloud service company, and so could deploy these Natick units to fulfill its own needs — but so far, it hasn’t announced any plans to switch