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Project Natick: Microsoft Tests Putting Data Centers Under the Sea

Data centers store massive amounts of information that our computers and smartphones access every day from "the cloud." Traditionally, they've all been built on land, often in remote locations, but Microsoft thinks there may be an advantage to putting them underwater.

On Monday, the company unveiled Project Natick, an initiative that is testing the deployment of a data center under the ocean's surface. The idea is that going underwater could drastically reduce the cost of cooling data centers, which is no small task given all the heat the servers generate. The electricity that powers the data centers could come from renewable wave or tidal power. And locating data centers closer to the people that rely on them reduces "latency," making for speedier downloads, streaming video and Web browsing. (Microsoft researchers note that half of the world's population lives within 120 miles of the sea.)

"This is speculative technology, in the sense that if it turns out to be a good idea, it will instantly change the economics of this business," says Norm Whitaker, who heads special projects for Microsoft Research NExT, "There are lots of moving parts, lots of planning that goes into this. This is more a tool that we can make available to data center partners. In a difficult situation, they could turn to this and use it."

So far, the team has only tested one underwater data center. It was placed inside a 10-by-7-foot container vessel named the Leona Philpot (a character in Microsoft's "Halo" video game) that was deployed off the coast of central California last August. After a 100-plus-day trial, that vessel is now back on land, and the team is analyzing the results. Thus far, it looks promising, Microsoft says.

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The researchers say the next phase could involve a data center inside a vessel four times the size of the Leona Philpot, with as much as 20 times the computing power.

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When will the underwater data centers make it to market? Microsoft stresses that Project Natick is in the research stage. "It's still early days in evaluating whether this concept could be adopted by Microsoft and other cloud service providers," the project's website says.