Microsoft Wants to Patent an Underwater Data Center Reef

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One idea Microsoft researchers voiced when they announced their underwater data center experiment in 2015 was having its enclosure act as an artificial reef, a habitat for marine life. Now, the company wants to include the idea in the body of intellectual property that’s come out of Project Natick.

Microsoft has filed an application to patent an Artificial Reef Datacenter, adding it to the list of applications describing other elements of its underwater cloud, such as a cooling system that uses the ocean as a giant heat exchanger and intrusion detection for submerged data centers.

If it graduates from experimentation stage to production, Project Natick will represent an enormous shift in the way the data center industry operates. According to Microsoft, not only can you put servers closer to more people if you submerge them off the coasts of major population centers, you will have easier time securing the required permits and guarantee a more predictable environment than on dry land. About half the world’s population lives in coastal areas, and the ocean floor is a relatively stable environment, with nearly constant water temperature and no disturbances from storms, currents, and politics.

After the team submerged a one-rack data center capsuleoff the coast of California for the first time in 2015 and saw encouraging results, Project Natick manager, Ben Cutler, announced last year that the next step would be to deploy a data center that’s about the size of a shipping container on the ocean floor.

This is a diagram of an entire server farm consisting of containers submerged and anchored above ocean floor (Source: Microsoft’s Artificial Reef Datacenter patent application)

The artificial-reef application, first spotted by Patent Yogi, describes multiple potential design approaches to encouraging marine life to occupy the enclosure. They include designing a structure that appears inviting to sea creatures, providing warmth, dispersing nutrients, and minimizing acoustic energy emanating from the machines inside. Of course, the data center being a stable structure with stable environmental conditions around it is already inviting enough to many ocean inhabitants.

The application describes data center enclosures that can sit directly on the ocean floor or anchored to float several feet above, when the floor is uneven. Microsoft is not limiting the patent to oceans, however, also listing lakes, rivers, and even flooded quarries as bodies of water that may become home to Azure, Office 365, or Xbox servers in the future.

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