The test of the first version of the design lasted 105 days in waters more than a half mile off the California coast. Nicknamed Leona Philpot, the 10' x 7', 38,000 lb. steel-encased data center was lowered 30 feet into the Pacific Ocean. A diver was sent down only once a month to check on the self-sustaining enclosure, and the single computing server rack functioned well on its own. The second Microsoft prototype, launched this month off the coast of Scotland, has grown to the size of a full-scale data center.


Back in the early stages of Project Natick, Peter Lee, vice president for Microsoft Research, explained the rationale for the effort. “We’re managing power, learning more about using less. These lessons will translate to better ways to operate our data centers. Even if we never do this on a bigger scale, we’re learning so many lessons.”

The scale of the second prototype, Northern Isles, is impressive. The steel enclosure has grown to 47' x 42'. The pressured space inside is the equivalent of a 40' ISO shipping container—the kind you see on ships or trains. That space holds 12 racks that hold 864 standard Microsoft data center servers, which are capable of managing 27.6 petabytes of disk storage. One petabyte is the equivalent of one million gigabytes, and Microsoft characterizes the Northern Isles data center as being as powerful as several thousand high-end consumer PCs.

One of the goals of Project Natick is to design data centers that are not only self-sufficient but also green. The location for this second prototype is in the cold North Sea off the coast of the Orkney Islands, in an area designated as the European Marine Energy Centre. This allows the Northern Isles to tap into locally produced renewable electricity from onshore wind and solar resources, as well as offshore tide and wave generation. Its power is 100% renewable.


If the thought of having your corporate data and cloud services sitting on the ocean floor in a “lights out” operation (nobody onsite—high reliability of maintenance-free components), Microsoft reminds us that the pressurized enclosures, the underwater power cables, and the conventional servers within are all proven technologies that precede the Natick Project.

Several consumer advantages are tied to the company unofficial motto: “50% of us live near the coast. Why doesn’t our data?” It’s important to be closer to your data center because proximity of the data center dramatically reduces latency and provides better responsiveness. According to the Natick researchers, “Signals travel around 200 km/millisecond across the Internet, so if you are 200 km away, one round trip to the data center takes about 2 milliseconds, but if you are 4,000 km away each round trip takes 40 milliseconds. If you are browsing the web, latency could affect how long it takes to completely paint a new webpage with lots of content.”

For Microsoft, Natick data centers have two other time-related advantages—rapid provisioning and sustainability. The Northern Isles model of this type of data center will be able to be deployed, “at scale, from start to finish, in no more than 90 days.” The researchers say, “Natick data centers are envisioned to be fully recycled. Made from recycled material, which, in turn, is recycled at the end of life of the data center. We see this as an opportunity to field long-lived, resilient data centers with very high reliability for the entire life of the deployment, possibly as long as 10 years.” The environmental sustainability will derive from renewable sources, where available, and the fact that no water is consumed for cooling or other purposes.

This second prototype is expected to remain undersea for a five-year test. And now, Project Natick is collaborating with employees from the entire Microsoft enterprise, especially those from Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise Group.

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