Microsoft is using experimental undersea data centers to search for a COVID-19 vaccine

Microsoft is using undersea data centers to research COVID-19.
Image: Microsoft | Spencer Fowers

It’s safe to say that life isn’t going to return to “normal” until a COVID-19 vaccine is found. Without one, it will be impossible to fully relax social distancing guidelines. Since no one wants to wear a mask in public for the rest of their life, organizations all around the world are pooling their resources to help find a vaccine.

That includes the use of unconventional methods. Microsoft is embracing that mentality by using an experimental deep-sea data center. The rig is helping model the viral protein structures of COVID-19 in hopes of finding a breakthrough that can support a vaccine.

Taking a Dip

Conventional data centers create a tremendous amount of heat. Anything that does intense processing—from gaming PCs to supercomputers—needs to have some sort of extravagant cooling system. The depths of the ocean certainly count as an unconventional cooling method.

Microsoft’s undersea data center, codenamed Project Natick, is about the size of a shipping container. The unit houses 864 standard datacenter servers that are kept running around the clock. It is currently submerged at a depth of 117 feet under the sea off the coast of Scotland. At that depth, water temperatures are chilly, usually in the neighborhood of about five degrees Celsius.

The Natick data center uses a plumbing system and the ocean’s naturally low temperatures to keep its contents cool. That’s more important now than ever as the servers run complex simulations of protein folding for a potential COVID-19 vaccine.

Since the setup harnesses the power of nature, it also doesn’t require as much energy as a traditional cooling system that uses fans.

Team Effort

Finding an effective coronavirus treatment depends heavily on being able to understand how the virus works. Protein folding is key to determining how COVID-19 is able to attach itself to human cells. Modeling ways that the proteins might fold helps identify potential areas that could serve as target sites for therapeutic drugs to bind to. However, running the simulations to do so is a resource-intensive process.

Dividing it up among several computers lessens the load that any one machine must handle and speeds up the process. Microsoft’s [email protected] distributed computing project launched back in 2000 to help with big research initiatives. Since then, it has taken many forms. As part of the [email protected] program, Microsoft’s undersea data centers are one of the most interesting.

“We just got into the top one percent of contributors in the world,” says Spencer Fowers, the technical lead for Project Natick. He notes that the data centers are “one hundred percent of the time dedicated to this project. They are constantly working on workloads and it allows us to do a big contribution.”

[email protected] was one of the first distributed computing groups to start working on COVID-related problems and immediately came out with a bunch of workloads that were geared toward finding antibodies and figuring out ways they could create immunizations,” Fowers says.

Aside from the Natick data center, Microsoft also rolled out software for its employees working from home to run simulations on their machines while they are idle.

That combined effort is already paying dividends. Microsoft notes that its AI for Health initiative (which contributes to [email protected]) has already revealed sites on the novel coronavirus that potential drugs could bind to.


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