Microsoft Sends a Data Center to the Ocean Floor to Find a COVID-19 Vaccine

June 18, 2020 by Gary Elinoff

Why underwater? The reason is actually quite practical: cooling.

Just off the coast of Scotland’s Orkney Islands, Microsoft has placed a small data center into a submarine tube and submerged it 117 feet underwater


Microsoft’s data center being prepared for its deployment to the bottom of the sea

Microsoft’s data center being prepared for its deployment to the bottom of the sea. Image used courtesy of Microsoft


What exactly are these data centers processing in the deep blue? As of recently, the server is devoted to understanding the viral proteins causing COVID-19 and designing solutions—specifically, a vaccine—to stop them. 


The Goals of Project Natick

Several years ago, we questioned whether undersea data centers were even a feasible technology. But now with this project, known as Project Natick, in full operation, we can see the surprising merits of putting a data center at the bottom of the ocean.

The project aims to explore the concept of a prepackaged, environmentally sustainable data center that can be left to operate on the seafloor for years with no maintenance. 

One of the major goals of the project is to study how the system's plumbing remains at stable operating temperatures, even when 864 data center servers are humming. When these servers aren't processing workloads for Microsoft, project leaders assign the data centers other tasks—and this effort to find a COVID-19 vaccine is one such task.


Why Underwater?

The reason is actually quite practical: cooling.

The idea, as reported by the BBC, is to use ocean water to cool the tiny data center’s 864 computer servers.


Engineer works on the server systems

Engineer works on the server systems as they are readied to be loaded into the cylindrical datacenter’s sea-facing hull. Image used courtesy of Microsoft


And, because the “submarine” will host no humans, Project Natick’s Ben Cutler explains that, "we can take all the oxygen and most of the water vapor out of the atmosphere which reduces corrosion, which is a significant problem in data centers."  


About the Sea-Bound Vessel

According to Eric Peterson, Microsoft's principal infrastructure engineer for this project, the data center vessels were built in two pieces: the external shell, which is the pressure vessel itself, and an internal payload. 

The data center runs entirely off renewable energy, Microsoft's project Natick manager Ben Cutler explains—a combination of solar power, wind power, and off-shore tidal wave energy.

At a selected deployment site, the data center is attached to a cable containing fiber optic and power wiring and is lowered 117 feet to the ocean floor.


Natick data center

The project Natick data center at the deployment site in Northern Isles. Image used courtesy of Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures

To test whether the system's plumbing can hold up while the 800+ servers are running continuously, Microsoft’s technical lead Spencer Fowler turned to distributed computing, a process whereby network-connected machines volunteer excess computing power to important “big science” problems.

The project Fowler zeroed in on for his test was computational “workloads that were geared toward finding antibodies and figuring out ways they could create immunizations”  for COVID-19. Even pharmacological research, like many other research projects, can often depend on the availability of vast amounts of computing power.


Undersea Data Centers vs. Land-Based Data Centers

Several Google-led projects demonstrate a pattern of commuting technology to unlikely places. When it's not hundreds of miles beneath the sea, like this project, it might be hundreds of miles in the air, as with Google's solar-powered balloons that bring mesh internet to remote or underserved regions


Partially submerged data center.

Partially submerged data center. Screenshot used courtesy of Microsoft

While the data centers in Project Natick are dwarfed in size compared to massive on-land data hubs, these undersea data centers have the advantage of mobility; that is, they can be shipped to any place. 

Another advantage of these marine data centers is that they experience low latency when they're placed in close proximity to a coastal location. For instance, if the datacenter is serving a project on a coastal location relying on system-level AI and not edge-based AI, its nearby location can be a tremendous advantage.


Colocation with Marine Renewable Energy

As mentioned in the BBC article, if these data centers were full-sized, the heat generated from the servers would affect the ocean water and pose an environmental hazard. So like Google’s Loon balloons, Project Natick will remain a useful and interesting endeavor, but one of limited applicability.

The Orkney Island location was chosen because of its abundance of clean energy based on renewable sources, crucial to Microsoft’s goal of environmental friendliness for its nautical project.

Christian Belady, Microsoft's general manager of cloud infrastructure strategy and architecture, explains that this project marries the company’s vision of data centers to sustainable renewable energy. 

Belady states, “Our vision is to be able to deploy compute rapidly anywhere on the planet as needed by our customers.”