Microsoft drowned the servers, but certainly not money. The future of video games lies at the bottom of the sea

The two wildest designs of Microsoft have more in common than you might think at first glance. What will you say about the future in which video games are streamed from data centers hidden on the seabed?

In the depths of the Microsoft campus in Redmond , which I had the opportunity to visit recently, work is underway on two potentially unrelated projects. Both are of enormous importance for the future of Microsoft's two key business sectors - games and cloud.

The first of them is Project xCloud

xCloud is a vision of the gaming of the future that Microsoft presented in October last year. To simplify it, it is Netflix for games - a streaming service that will allow you to play video games on any device. Not only on a dedicated console or PC, but also on smartphones and tablets.

Games will not require computing power from our devices. The provision of resources will be provided by Azure, i.e. Microsoft's cloud infrastructure. In this way, even those who do not have the most modern console or powerful gaming computer will be able to enjoy the game in the latest, most demanding titles.

xCloud is a beautiful vision, but for now ... just a vision. Although Microsoft is gradually transferring the weight of its gaming business into the cloud, it will take years for the idea of ​​streaming games to take its toll.

During my stay in Redmond I had the chance to talk with Bartek, a Polish programmer working in the Xbox department. When I asked him what was the main obstacle to the xCloud project, he answered without hesitation - lag.

The problem is not the bandwidth of internet connections. Microsoft is testing the xCloud project on 10 Mbps links, and practically everyone has such speed at home. Even an existing LTE network can easily provide such bandwidth.

The lack of resources is also a problem. Azure easily handles the processing of data necessary to stream games to users' devices.

The real problem is the delay resulting from the distance between the data centers on which the games are located and the recipients' devices.

How to remedy this problem? Two things are really needed - stable network infrastructure and proximity to data centers. We're talking about distances no bigger than a few hundred kilometers.

As for the infrastructure, even on the Polish plot we are either ready or very close to readiness. Optical fibers extend in many cities and the cellular network is available in all key areas. Add to this the forthcoming arrival of 5G and we can be sure that within 5 years the infrastructure will not be a problem.

But what about data centers? Their construction absorbs unimaginable amounts of money, as well as the costs of supply and maintenance. Building requires a lot of time - in the words of a Microsoft representative, in the United States the process of building Azure centers, from choosing and buying a plot to running servers, lasts an average of 5 years.

Currently, Microsoft has 54 Azure regions, available in 140 countries. That's a lot, but not enough to handle both the requirements of the xCloud project and other Microsoft services based on the cloud. In Redmond, however, a project is being developed that can remedy these problems.

Data go underground. Project Natick may turn out to be the most important of Microsoft's business projects.

Microsoft has already experimented with "sinking clouds" in 2016, but only a year ago the project entered the second decisive phase. 12.2 m and a diameter of 2.8 m. This capsule was a data center called "Northern Isles", created as part of the Natick project.

Inside the capsule there are 12 racks, containing 864 standard servers with a capacity of 27.6 petabytes. This is approximately as much as 5 million movies are needed to store. The whole is connected to the mainland by one powerful wire that transmits energy and data. In the future, the same cable will allow you to combine the capsules into modules, creating huge underwater data farms.

Microsoft will certainly share detailed project statistics on the anniversary of launching "Northern Isles", but now you can talk about great success. Spencer Fowers, the engineer responsible for the Natick project, told me about it.

What is the Natick project different from a typical data center?

The first distinction is of course the size. As the container is placed underwater, which is responsible for cooling this large metal can, the servers can be placed much closer to each other than in classical data centers, where adequate air flow must be ensured.

Another distinguishing feature is energy efficiency. Data centers charge abstract amounts of electricity. One Natick project container gets it only 240 KW.

Classical data centers also require constant supervision. Spencer Fowers explained during the presentation that to a large extent the failure of data centers is due to human presence, as well as dust deposited in server rooms. According to Fowers, the exchange of many components is required at the traditional data center at least once a year.

Meanwhile, "Northern Isles" was designed to work without any interference for five years. If in the meantime one of the disks succeeds, backup disks are provided, which automatically take over the role of the damaged unit.

However, the time and cost of putting a container is important. Unless we know anything about the real cost of the underwater data center itself, the time it takes to run it is extremely short. Just as a classic data center can be created over 5 years, the Natick project container is ready to be launched in just 90 days.

And thanks to the fact that its dimensions coincide with the size of a standard transport container, logistics is also cheaper, because units such as "Northern Isles" can be transported without the use of any specialized machinery. The first container reached Great Britain on a regular freighter, and arrived in Scotland on a semi-trailer tractor. From there, a simple crane designed for offshore work was enough to deliver the container to the place and launch it.

Taking all this into account, the Natick project may prove to be crucial for Microsoft's development, drastically reducing the costs of building and maintaining data centers on which the entire business of the company depends. And although the project is in a very early phase, you can already look at it with great optimism.

Project Natick

The results after more than a year of testing are more than promising. Also from the ecological side.

So far, "Northern Isles" works without a hitch. Salty sea water cools the container to an extent even more than necessary, and all the energy needed to feed it comes from renewable sources generated by the EMEC research center: solar panels and windmills on land, and energy coming from the waves.

The Natick project was also surprising from the ecological side, and it was - as Fowers says - one of the biggest worries of the team responsible for the project. To thoroughly investigate the impact of "Northern Isles" on the environment, the outer side of the "can" is covered with sensors. There are thermometers to examine how the heat generated by "Northern Isles" affects the water in its vicinity. There are cameras that study the behavior of living organisms. There are also microphones that measure the volume of the servers.

Project Natick

After the first few months of measurement, the results - as Spencer Fowers says - are amazing.

The thermometers have shown that (at least in salt waters off the coast of Scotland) the "Northern Isles" have no influence on the water temperature in their immediate environment. The smallest.

Cameras, which until recently broadcast live images (currently waiting for a team of divers to cleanse them from the container growing on the flora), revealed that the animals are not only afraid of the "Northern Isles", which even get caught up in the container and seek shelter in its near.

The microphones have shown that the Microsoft container generates roughly as much noise under the water as ... crab claws.

The next projected stage of the Natick project is to extend it to modules, perhaps in another part of the world. Details are not yet disclosed, but Spencer Fowers does not exclude that after such promising first measurements it is possible to attempt to create an artificial coral reef using Natick project containers.

As for the environmental performance of the containers themselves - they are ultimately to be removed from the water only once every five years, in order to replace the computers enclosed in them. Then the container will go under water again, and after exceeding 20 years of life will be removed for good and recycled.

According to the engineer who is involved in this project, after the first months of testing, the Natick project can be confidently successful not only from the technological side, but also from the ecological side.

Project Natick

What does Project Natick have to do with Project xCloud?

Well ... nothing. At least for now. Both projects, especially the underwater ones, are in such early phases that it is impossible to talk about them in a different way, as in speculation.

Spencer Fowler did not deny, however, when I asked if the Natick project could be used in tandem with the xCloud project. Ultimately ... when data centers are already under water, they will be used just like any other Azure region. And this also applies to gaming.

However, the advantage of the Natick project over classic data centers is the potential proximity of servers to users. Over 50 percent humanity lives near a large body of water. Even if it was not possible to place containers with data centers everywhere, underwater servers could solve the problem where the construction of a classic data center is impossible or unprofitable.

And this in turn would open the xCloud project for a larger number of users, potentially also eliminating the problem of delay resulting from the distance of servers. And it's all in an environmentally friendly way - the same pros!

This is, of course, only speculation.

The Natick project is not even developing, but early research. Before Microsoft can assess whether the project is fit for commercial implementation, many years may pass.

The prospect, however, is more than exciting. Ecological data centers at the bottom of the seas and oceans, providing knowledge and entertainment to users from around the world?

It looks like a vision of the future, which is definitely worth fighting for.

Microsoft drowned the servers, but certainly not money. The future of video games lies at the bottom of the sea


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