What Is Microsoft’s Project Natick?


Project Natick is focused on a cloud future that can help better serve customers in areas near large bodies of water. The primary goal of Microsoft’s research project is to understand the benefits and challenges of underwater data centers. By doing so, they can develop an underwater datacenter solution that is powered by offshore renewable energy.  

What is Project Natick?  

Microsoft’s Project Natick is a research project that seeks to understand the benefits and difficulties in deploying subsea data centers worldwide. This research project was created to determine the reliability of underwater data centers powered by offshore renewable energy. Furthermore, customers will be able to benefit from Natick’s rapid provisioning, latency, and sustainability. 

  • Rapid Provisioning: customers will be able to deploy a datacenter at scale in no more than 90 days. This also enables rapid response to market demand. 
  • Latency: placing data centers offshore will increase the proximity of the datacenter to the population, reducing latency and providing better responsiveness. 
  • Sustainability: a sustainable data center that uses locally produced green energy will help customers fulfill their own sustainability requirements.  Natick data centers are envisioned to be fully recycled, made from recycled material, and recycled at the end of its lifespan.

Project Natick Phase One

Microsoft’s challenge for phase one was to create a data center that didn’t require hand-on supervision. If people are involved, then factors such as landscaping, security, oxygen, environment, and light need to be considered. As a result, they decided to use a “lights out” operation to remotely operate an underwater center. 

By using a lights out data center, they can reduce costs and save unnecessary energy. From August to November of 2015, the Natick Phase 1 vessel was deployed off the coast of California. The team designed a compact and self-sustaining round container to resist pressure and prevent nature attacks. 

Researchers also used cameras and sensors to monitor the container from their offices. They were able to record data including temperature, humidity, the amount of power being used for the system, and the current speed.  In this phase, the team successfully confirmed that data centers can be deployed and operated in a lights out underwater environment.   

Microsoft’s Project Natick being deployed underwater

Project Natick Phase Two

Phase 2 aims to demonstrate that individuals can economically manufacture full scale underwater data centers modules in under 90 days. They wanted to deploy the vessel in deeper and harsher conditions, along with powering it with renewable energy. For their design process, they were able to design subsea equivalents of elements seen in a land datacenter. These elements include networking, electrical, cooling systems, environmental monitoring, and more. 

In June 2018, the Northern Isles vessel was deployed at the European Marine Energy Centre located in the Orkney Islands, UK. The goals for Phase 2 are: 

  1. Develop one full scale prototype underwater data center and efficiently deploy at a depth of no more than 32 ft. (100 meters). 
  2. Demonstrate “lights out” operation during a deployment cycle of up to 5 years.
  3. Power the prototype from a nearby marine renewable energy source. 
  4. Explore cloud datacenter solutions that offer less resource intensive options. 

Afterwards, the team members tested and monitored the performance of the underwater data center’s servers for the next two years. In Phase 2, the team successfully deployed and economically manufactured a full scale underwater data center module in under 90 days. 

The Future of Underwater Data Centers

Ultimately, Project Natick is currently in the research stage. Microsoft wants Natick data center deployments to last up to 5 years since the expected lifespan of the PCs contained. After each 5-year deployment cycle, the vessel would be retrieved, reloaded with new computers, and then redeployed. Microsoft’s target lifespan for Natick datacenters is at least 20 years, which is designed to be retrieved and recycled afterwards.

The future of underwater data centers is to reduce unnecessary power consumption, use green energy, and increase sustainability. This is a great opportunity for companies to efficiently deploy underwater data centers that improve the environment. 

What Is Microsoft’s Project Natick?
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What Is Microsoft’s Project Natick?
Project Natick is focused on a cloud future that can help better serve customers in areas near large bodies of water. The goal of Microsoft's research project is to develop an underwater datacenter solution that is powered by offshore renewable energy.  
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