Screenshot from live camera outside Microsoft's undersea data center.
Screenshot from live camera outside Microsoft's undersea data center.

Microsoft is Live Streaming from Its Underwater Data Center in Scotland

It's like watching a silent, plot-less version of Finding Nemo

If you're one of those people who's always thought there's something fishy about Microsoft, you might want to take a gander at the live video that's streaming online from a couple of cameras watching the Project Natick data center that Redmond deployed in June. Your suspicions will be confirmed.

Natick isn't your father's data center. It's a horizontal cylinder-shaped structure that lies on the ocean's floor at the European Marine Energy Centre, not far from Scotland’s Orkney Islands. If today's video feed is any indication, it's often surrounded by large schools of fish. Most seem to be paying the metal structure no mind. Other smaller fish seem to be nuzzling the structure, perhaps performing a service by eating some sort of undersea life that has attached to the outside.

It's like a little city of sea life has settled around the underwater data center. Maybe they're expecting jobs.

The data center was dropped -- slowly -- to the bottom in early June as "an applied research project" designed "to investigate manufacturing and operating environmentally sustainable, prepackaged data center units that can be ordered to size, rapidly deployed and left to operate lights out on the seafloor for years." To facilitate shipping, the containment vessel was designed to mimic the dimensions of a shipping container, which gives it a length of 40 feet.

Microsoft/Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures

Spencer Fowers, senior member of technical staff for Microsoft’s special projects research group, prepares Project Natick’s Northern Isles data center for deployment off the coast of the Orkney Islands in Scotland. The data center is secured to a ballast-filled triangular base that rests on the seafloor.

Neatly crammed into the vessel like sardines in a tin are 12 racks containing 864 standard Microsoft data center servers with FPGA acceleration and 27.6 petabytes of disk, which Microsoft said equates to the compute power of several thousand high-end consumer PCs and enough storage for about 5 million movies. There's also infrastructure for cooling, which is done using saltwater, naturally. Non-corrosive dry nitrogen is used to keep the inside pressure at one atmosphere. Attached to the cylinder-shaped structure are power cables to bring in 240kW -- all from nearby renewable sources -- and a fiber optic cable for data.

Redmond evidently bought the extended warranty plan, because it's expecting the center to operate maintenance-free for five years. An earlier version, a vertical instead of horizontal cylinder with a single rack of equipment, was sunk off the California coast in 2015 as a 105-day proof-of-concept experiment. This go around, Microsoft evidently wants to see how the design holds up under normal data center operating conditions.

"Like any new car, we will kick the tires and run the engine in different speeds to make sure everything works well," Spencer Fowers, a senior technical staff person at Microsoft’s special projects research group, said after the deployment. "Then, once we are completely ready to go, we will grab one or two of our clients and hand them over the keys and let them start deploying jobs onto our system."

According to Microsoft, the project will help researchers determine "whether it’s possible to use the existing logistics supply chain to ship and rapidly deploy modular data centers anywhere in the world, even in the roughest patches of sea."

Why? For one thing, Microsoft points out, a large portion of the population lives within a couple of hundred miles of the world's coasts, and data centers are more effective when they're close to the people they serve. Real estate on the ocean floor is probably a lot cheaper than on dry land; permits are likely to be much easier to get.

So, what's the purpose of video streaming live from a data center anchored 117 feet below the surface? It's great PR, and the sight of little fishes happily swimming around the structure has to help the green image that Microsoft (and practically every other tech company) is trying to cultivate. It's also doubtlessly something of an environmental impact study. When the vessel was submerged, there were concerns that the heat generated by the IT equipment could have a negative environmental effect. Early indicators seemed to suggest, however, that the heat was being cooled by the cold Scotland water within inches of the structure, the company said.

In any event, the schools of fish swimming around it don't seem think it's degrading their way of life. Watching them is like watching a silent, plot-less version of Finding Nemo.

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