“50% of us live near the coast,” Microsoft says. “Why doesn’t our data?”

Building huge data centers underwater might sound bizarrely Jules Vernesian, but it’s exactly something Microsoft’s testing. The plan’s called Project Natick, and its website states its purpose: “to understand the benefits and difficulties in deploying subsea data centers worldwide.”

Why build data centers underwater? Customer proximity, for one. Since so many large cities are coastal, building cloud computing data centers in the nearby bodies of water (as opposed to in the middle of nowhere, as is usually the case) could improve the performance of services like Netflix for millions of urbanites. Plus, putting servers underwater basically eliminates the possibility that they’ll crash due to overheating. And finally, Microsoft suggests it can pair the underwater data centers with tide-powered electrical generators or turbines, which could help address increasing energy demands.

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The first prototype is called Leona Philpot (after the Halo character who appears on Microsoft’s Xboxes) was tested last fall about a kilometer off the California coast, 30 feet under water. The test enclosed a single datacenter computing rack in an eight foot-wide steel capsule, which was covered in sensors that monitored wpressure, humidity, and other factors that helped the engineers learn more about possible challenges they’ll face in the future.

In December, after a series of successful tests, it was shipped back to Microsoft HQ in Redmond, Washington for analysis. Microsoft thinks it can install underwater data centers faster than it can build ones on land—90 days versus two years.

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I can’t imagine that there won’t be any environmentalist concern on this one. The reasoning behind the project is pretty logical, though, assuming the “subsea data centers” work like they’re supposed to—and it sounds like the prototype did just fine. The next trial will use a capsule three times larger than the Leona and is scheduled to take the plunge next year.

[Project Natick via NYT]

GIF via Microsoft Research YouTube