Microsoft employs experimental undersea data center in search for COVID-19 vaccine

Darrell Etherington
Microsoft's Project Natick at the launch site in the city of Stromness on Orkney Island, Scotland on Sunday May 27, 2018. (Photography by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

Part of the challenge in seeking out an effective treatment for COVID-19 is simply one of scale -- protein folding is key to understanding how the virus that causes COVID-19 attaches to health cells in order to infect them. Modeling said folding gets a big boost from distributed computing efforts like the Folding@home global program, which employs even consumer computers as processing nodes to tackle big problems. Microsoft is testing pre-packed, shipping container-sized data centres that can be spun up on demand and run deep under the ocean's surface for sustainable, high-efficiency and cool operation to contribute to such efforts in a big way, and it's now using one in Scotland to model viral proteins that lead to COVID-19.

This research project isn't new for Microsoft -- it's been operating the data center at a depth of 117 feet for two years now. But the shift of its focus to COVID-19 represents a new development, and is obviously a response to the imminent need for more advances around our understanding of the SARS-CoV-19 virus and potential therapies that we could use to treat or prevent it from infecting people.

Within the tubular submerged data center are 864 servers, providing significant computing power. The idea of packing them into a submersible tube is intended to provide efficiencies in terms of operating temperatures. Cooling and thermal management is essential for any high-capacity processing equipment, since all that computing power generates a tremendous amount of heat. It's why you see such elaborate cooling equipment in high-performance gaming PC builds, and it's doubly crucial when you're operating at the level of the data center. Deep underwater, the thermal environment provides natural cooling that allows processors to run consistently at higher speeds, without the need to pump more energy in to run fans or more elaborate liquid cooling systems.

Should this project, which Microsoft has dubbed "Natick," work as designed, future distributed computing projects could benefit immensely from the on-demand deployment of a number of these distributed sea-floor data centers.