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Diving Underwater with Data

With data storage providers racing to come up with the next innovation in the niche, it seems that Microsoft has pulled out to a sudden lead with their most recent endeavor. Officially referred to as Project Natick, their latest attempt to revolutionize the data storage industry relies on large-scale data centers that are literally stored on the ocean floor. While cloud storage isn't a term that should be taken in the literal, natural sense, Microsoft's new undersea storage is exactly that.

Originally conceived by Microsoft employee Sean James, who received the idea from his service in the United States Navy, officials with Microsoft agreed to go ahead with the project. James was quoted as saying: "I see a real opportunity that this could work. In my experience the trick to innovating is not coming up with something brand new, but connecting things we’ve never connected before, pairing different technology together."

Their first test of underwater infrastructure, which was started in August 2015, consisted of a 38,000-pound container that housed a fully operational data center in the form of a solitary server rack, an advanced cooling system and electronic support systems. Microsoft also collected a large amount of environmental data, including ocean current speeds, temperatures and humidity levels, for further research.

Remote monitoring of the unit was also made available, thereby allowing Microsoft's IT team to keep an eye on their hardware without having to dive to the floor of the Pacific Ocean. In fact, the entire unit is designed to run, for the most part, completely autonomously. Once in place, the vessel only requires physical interaction once per month for routine inspection. Apart from that, everything is controlled, monitored and achieved through a remote connection to facilities back on the mainland.

Peter Lee, corporate vice president with Microsoft Research NExT, sees this as a great learning experience. He was quoted as saying: " We’re learning how to reconfigure firmware and drivers for disk drives, to get longer life out of them. We’re managing power, learning more about using less. These lessons will translate to better ways to operate our datacenters. Even if we never do this on a bigger scale, we’re learning so many lessons."

However, the team with Microsoft has already announced a larger project. Still in its infancy, the second installment of Project Natick is expected to use a vessel that is three times larger than the first. While the first project remained in the ocean for just over three months, Microsoft has not released such timelines for the future. Regardless, they are planning on beginning their next round of trials by the end of 2017.

While their concept of an underwater data center has been proven, the team with Microsoft still has a long way to go before making the service available to the general public. Given the success of their initial testing, however, as well as their eagerness to pursue the project even further, underwater data centers may very well hit the mainstream before too long.

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