Microsoft Research Podcast

Microsoft Research Podcast

An ongoing series of conversations bringing you right up to the cutting edge of Microsoft Research.

Putting the cloud under the sea with Ben Cutler

September 5, 2018 | By Microsoft blog editor

 

ben cutler podcast

Ben Cutler from Microsoft Research. Photo by Maryatt Photography.

Episode 40, September 5, 2018

Data centers have a hard time keeping their cool. Literally. And with more and more data centers coming online all over the world, calls for innovative solutions to “cool the cloud” are getting loud. So, Ben Cutler and the Special Projects team at Microsoft Research decided to try to beat the heat by using one of the best natural venues for cooling off on the planet: the ocean. That led to Project Natick, Microsoft’s prototype plan to deploy a new class of eco-friendly data centers, under water, at scale, anywhere in the world, from decision to power-on, in 90 days. Because, presumably for Special Projects, go big or go home.

In today’s podcast we find out a bit about what else the Special Projects team is up to, and then we hear all about Project Natick and how Ben and his team conceived of, and delivered on, a novel idea to deal with the increasing challenges of keeping data centers cool, safe, green, and, now, dry as well!

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Episode Transcript

Ben Cutler: In some sense we’re not really solving new problems. What we really have here is a marriage of these two mature industries. One is the IT industry, which Microsoft understands very well. And then the other is a marine technologies industry. So, we’re really trying to figure out how do we blend these things together in a way that creates something new and beneficial?

(music plays)

Host: You’re listening to the Microsoft Research Podcast, a show that brings you closer to the cutting-edge of technology research and the scientists behind it. I’m your host, Gretchen Huizinga.

Host: Data centers have a hard time keeping their cool. Literally. And with more and more data centers coming online all over the world, calls for innovative solutions to “cool the cloud” are getting loud. So, Ben Cutler and the Special Projects team at Microsoft Research decided to try to beat the heat by using one of the best natural venues for cooling off on the planet: the ocean. That led to Project Natick, Microsoft’s prototype plan to deploy a new class of eco-friendly data centers, under water, at scale, anywhere in the world, from decision to power-on, in 90 days. Because, presumably for Special Projects, go big or go home.

In today’s podcast we find out a bit about what else the Special Projects team is up to, and then we hear all about Project Natick, and how Ben and his team conceived of, and delivered on, a novel idea to deal with the increasing challenges of keeping data centers cool, safe, green, and, now, dry as well! That and much more on this episode of the Microsoft Research Podcast.

Host: Ben Cutler. Welcome to the podcast.

Ben Cutler: Thanks for having me.

Host: You’re a researcher in Special Projects at MSR. Give us a brief description of the work you do. In broad strokes, what gets you up in the morning?

Ben Cutler: Well, so I think Special Projects is a little unusual. Rather than have a group that always does the same thing persistently, it’s more based on this idea of projects. We find some new idea, something, in our case, that we think is materially important to the company, and go off and pursue it. And it’s a little different in that we aren’t limited by the capabilities of the current staff. We’ll actually go out and find partners, whether they be in academia or very often in industry, who can kind of help us grow and stretch in some new direction.

Host: How did Special Projects come about? Has it always been “a thing” within Microsoft Research, or is it a fairly new idea?

Ben Cutler: Special Projects is a relatively new idea. In early 2014, my manager, Norm Whitaker, who’s a managing scientist inside Microsoft Research was recruited to come here. Norm had spent the last few years of his career at DARPA, which is Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has a very long history in the United States, and a lot of the seminal technology achieved is not just on the defense side, where we see things like stealth, but also on the commercial or consumer side had their origins in DARPA. And so, we’re trying to bring some of that culture here into Microsoft Research and a willingness to go out and pursue crazy things and a willingness not just to pursue new types of things, but things that are in areas that historically we would never have touched as a company, and just be willing to crash into some new thing and see if it has value for us.

Host: So, that seems like a bit of a shift from Microsoft, in general, to go in this direction. What do you think prompted it, within Microsoft Research to say, “Hey let’s do something similar to DARPA here?”

Ben Cutler: I think if you look more broadly at the company, with Satya, we have this very different perspective, right? Which is, not everything is based on what we’ve done before. And a willingness to really go out there and draw in things from outside Microsoft and new ideas and new concepts in ways that we’ve never done, I think, historically as a company. And this is in some sense a manifestation of this idea of, you know, what can we do to enable every person in every organization on the planet to achieve more? And a part of that is to go out there and look at the broader context of things and what kind of things can we do that might be new that might help solve problems for our customers?

Host: You’re working on at least two really cool projects right now, one of which was recently in the news and we’ll talk about that in a minute. But I’m intrigued by the work you’re doing in holoportation. Can you tell us more about that?

Ben Cutler: If you think about what we typically do with a camera, we’re capturing this two-dimensional information. One stage beyond that is what’s called a depth camera, which is, in addition to capturing color information, it captured the distance to each pixel. So now I’m getting a perspective and I can actually see the distance and see, for example, the shape of someone’s face. Holoportation takes that a step further where we’ll have a room that we outfit with, say, several cameras. And from that, now, I can reconstruct the full, 3-D content of the room. So, you can kind of think of this as, I’m building a holodeck. And so now you can imagine I’m doing a video conference, or, you know, something as simple as like Facetime, but rather than just sort of getting that 2-D, planar information, I can actually now wear a headset and be in some immersive space that might be two identical conferences rooms in two different locations and I see my local content, but I also see the remote content as holograms. And then of course we can think of other contexts like virtual environments, where we kind of share across different spaces, people in different locations. Or even, if you will, a broadcast version of this. So, you can imagine someone’s giving a concert. And now I can actually go be at that concert even if I’m not there. Or think about fashion. Imagine going to a fashion show and actually being able to sit in the front row even though I’m not there. Or, everybody gets the front row seats at the World Cup soccer.

Host: Wow. It’s democratizing event attendance.

Ben Cutler: It really is. And you can imagine I’m visiting the Colosseum and a virtual tour guide appears with me as I go through it and can tell me all about that. Or some, you know, awesome event happens at the World Cup again, and I want to actually be on the soccer field where that’s happening right now and be able to sort of review what happened to the action as though I was actually there rather than whatever I’m getting on television.

Host: So, you’re wearing a headset for this though, right?

Ben Cutler: You’d be wearing an AR headset. For some of the broadcast things you can imagine not wearing a headset. It might be I’ve got it on my phone and just by moving my phone around I can kind of change my perspective. So, there’s a bunch of different ways that this might be used. So, it’s this interesting new capture technology. Much as HoloLens is a display, or a viewing technology, this is the other end, capture, and there’s different ways we can kind of consume that content. One might be with a headset, the other might just be on a PC using a mouse to move around much as I would on a video game to change my perspective or just on a cell phone, because today, there’s a relatively small number of these AR/VR headsets but there are billions of cell phones.

Host: Right. Tell me what you’re specifically doing in this project?

Ben Cutler: In the holoportation?

Host: Yeah.

Ben Cutler: So, really what’s going on right now is, when this project first started to outfit a room, to do this sort of a thing, might’ve been a couple hundred thousand dollars of cost, and it might be 1 to 3 gigabits of data between sites. So, it’s just not really practical, even at an enterprise level. And so, what we’re working on is, with the HoloLens team and other groups inside the company, to really sort of dramatically bring down that cost. So now you can imagine you’re a grandparent and you want to kind of play with your grandkids who are in some other location in the world. So, this is something that we think, in the next couple years, actually might be at the level the consumers can have access to this technology and use it every day.

Host: This is very much in the research stage, though, right?

Ben Cutler: We have an email address and we hear from people every day, “How do I buy this? How can I get this?” And you know, it’s like, “Hey, here’s our website. It’s just research right now. It’s not available outside the company. But keep an eye on this because maybe that will change in the future.”

Host: Yeah. Yeah, and that is your kind of raison d’etre is to bring these impossibles into inevitables in the market. That should be a movie. The Inevitables.

Ben Cutler: I think there’s something similar to that, but anyway…

Host: I think a little, yeah. So just drilling a little bit on the holoportation, what’s really cool I noticed on the website, which is still research, is moving from a room-based hologram, or holoported individual, into mobile holoportation. And you’ve recently done this, at least in prototype, in a car, yes?

Ben Cutler: We have. So, we actually took an SUV. We took out the middle seat. And then we mounted cameras in various locations. Including, actually, the headrests of the first-row passengers. So that if you’re sitting in that back row we could holoport you somewhere. Now this is a little different than, say, that room-to-room scenario. You can imagine, for example, the CEO of our company can’t make a meeting in person, so he’ll take it from the car. And so, the people who are sitting in that conference room will wear an AR headset like a HoloLens. And then Satya would appear in that room as though he’s actually there. And then from Satya’s perspective, he’d wear a VR headset, right? So, he would not be sitting in his car anymore. He would be holoported into that conference room.

(music plays)

Host: Let’s talk about the other big project you’re doing: Project Natick. You basically gave yourself a crazy list of demands and then said, “Hey, let’s see if we can do it!” Tell us about Project Natick. Give us an overview. What it is, how did it come about, where it is now, what does it want to be when it grows up?

Ben Cutler: So, Project Natick is an exploration of manufactured data centers that we place underwater in the ocean. And so, the genesis of this is kind of interesting, because it also shows not just research trying to influence the rest of the company, but that if you’re working elsewhere inside Microsoft, you can influence Microsoft Research. So, in this case, go back to 2013, and a couple employees, Sean James and Todd Rawlings, wrote this paper that said we should put data centers in the ocean and the core idea was, the ocean is a place where you can get good cooling, and so maybe we should look at that for data centers. Historically, when you look at data centers, the dominant cost, besides the actual computers doing the work, is the air conditioning. And so, we have this ratio in the industry called PUE, or Power Utilization Effectiveness. And if you go back a long time ago to data centers, PUEs might be as high as 4 or 5. A PUE of 5 says that, for every watt of power for computers, there’s an additional 4 watts for the air conditioning, which is just kind of this crazy, crazy thing. And so, industry went through this phase where we said, “OK, now we’re going to do this thing called hot aisle/cold aisle. We line up all the computers in a row, and cold air comes in one side and hot air goes out the other.” Now, modern data centers that Microsoft builds have a PUE of about 1.125. And the PUE we see of what we have right now in the water is about 1.07. So, we have cut the cooling cost. But more importantly we’ve done it in a way that we’ve made the data center much colder. So, we’re about 10-degrees Celsius cooler than land data centers. And we’ve known, going back to the middle of the 20th century, that higher temperatures are a problem for components and in fact, a factor of 10-degree Celsius difference can be a factor of 2 difference of the life expectancy of equipment. So, we think that this is one way to bring reliability up a lot. So, this idea of reliability is really a proxy for server longevity and how do we make things last longer? In addition to cooling, there’s other things that we have here. One of which is the atmosphere inside this data center is dry nitrogen atmosphere. So, there’s no oxygen. And the humidity is low. And we think that helps get rid of corrosion. And then the other thing is, data centers we get stuff comes from outside. So, by having this sealed container, safe under the ocean we hopefully have this environment that will allow servers to last much longer.

Host: How did data center technology and submarine technology come together so that you could put the cloud under water?

Ben Cutler: Natick is a little bit unusual as a research project because in some sense we’re not really solving new problems. What we really have here is a marriage of these two mature industries. One is the IT industry, which Microsoft understands very well. And then the other is a marine technologies industry. So, we’re really trying to figure out, how do we blend these things together in a way that creates something new and beneficial?

Host: And so, the submarine technology, making something watertight and drawing on the decades that people have done underwater things, how did you bring that together? Did you have a team of naval experts…?

Ben Cutler: So, the first time we did this, we just, sort of, crashed into it, and we, literally, just built this can and we just kind of dropped it in the water, and ok, we can do this, it kind of works. And so, then the second time around, we put out what we call a Request for Information. We’re thinking of doing this thing, and we did this to government and to academia and to industry, and just to see who’s interested in playing this space? What do they think about it? What kind of approaches would they take? And you know, we’re Microsoft. We don’t really know anything about the ocean. We’ve identified a bunch of folks we think do know about it. And on the industry side we really looked at three different groups. We looked to ship builders, we looked to people who were doing renewable energy in the ocean, which we should come back to that, and then we looked to oil and gas services industry. And so, we got their response and on the basis of that, we then crafted a Request for Proposal to actually go off and do something with us. And that identified what kind of equipment we put inside it, what our requirements were in terms of how we thought that this would work, how cool it had to be, the operating environment that needed to be provided for the servers, and also some more mundane stuff like, when you’re shipping it, what’s the maximum temperature things can get to when it’s like, sitting in the sun on a dock somewhere? And, on the basis of that, we got a couple dozen proposals from four different continents. And so, we chose a partner and then set forward. And so, in part, we were working with University of Washington Applied Physics Lab… is one of three centers of excellence for ocean sciences in the United States, along with Woods Hole and Scripps. And so, we leveraged that capability to help us go through the selection process. And then the company we chose to work with is a company called Naval Group, which is a French company, and among other things, they do naval nuclear submarines, surface ships, but they also do renewable energies. And, in particular, renewable energies in the ocean, so offshore wind, they do tidal energy which is to say, gaining energy from the motion of the tides, as well as something called OTEC which is Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion. So, they have a lot of expertise in renewable energy. Which is very interesting to us. Because another aspect of this that we like is this idea of co-location with offshore renewable energies. So, the idea is, rather than connecting to the grid, I might connect to renewable energies that get placed in the same location where we put this. That’s actually not a new idea for Microsoft. We have data centers that are built near hydroelectric dams or built near windfarms in Texas. So, we like this idea of renewable energy. And so, as we think about this idea of data centers in the ocean, it’s kind of a normal thing, in some sense, that this idea of the renewables would go with us.

Host: You mentioned the groups that you reached out to. Did you have any conversation with environmental groups or how this might impact sea life or the ocean itself?

Ben Cutler: So, we care a lot about that. We like the idea of co-location with the offshore renewables, not just for the sustainability aspects of this, but also for the fact that a lot of those things are going up near large populations centers. So, it’s a way to get close to customers. We’re also interested in other aspects of sustainability. And those include things like artificial reefs. We’ve actually filed an application for a patent having to use this idea of undersea data centers, potentially, as artificial reefs.

Host: So, as you look to maybe, scaling up… Say this thing, in your 5-year experiment, does really well. And you say, “Hey, we’re going to deploy more of these.” Are you looking, then, with the sustainability goggles on, so to speak, for Natick staying green both for customers but also for the environment itself?

Ben Cutler: We are. And I think one thing people should understand too, is you look out at the ocean and it looks like this big, vast open space, but in reality, it’s actually very carefully regulated. So anywhere we go, there are always authorities and rules as to what you can do and how you do them, so there’s that oversight. And there’s also things that we look at directly, ourselves. One of the things that we like about these, is from a recyclability standpoint, it’s a pretty simple structure. Every five years, we bring that thing back to shore, we put a new set of servers in, refresh it, send it back down, and then when we’re all done we bring it back up, we recycle it, and the idea is you leave the seabed as you found it. On the government side, there’s a lot of oversight, and so, the first thing to understand is, typically, like, as I look at the data center that’s there now, the seawater that we eject back into the ocean is about 8/10 of a degree warmer, Celsius, than the water that came in. It’s a very rapid jet, so, it very quickly mixes with the other seawater. And in our case, the first time we did this, a few meters downstream it was a few thousandths of a degree warmer by the time we were that far downstream.

Host: So, it dissipates very quickly.

Ben Cutler: Water… it takes an immense amount of energy to heat it. If you looked at all of the energy generated by all the data centers in the world and pushed all of them at the ocean, per year you’d raise the temperature a few millionths of a degree. So, in net, we don’t really worry about it. The place that we worry about it is this idea of local warming. And so, one of the things that’s nice about the ocean is because there are these persistent currents, we don’t have buildup of temperature anywhere. So, this question of the local heating, it’s really just, sort of, make sure your density is modest and then the impact is really negligible. An efficient data center in the water actually has less impact on the oceans than an inefficient data center on land does.

Host: Let’s talk about latency for a second. One of your big drivers in putting these in the water, but near population centers, is so that data moves fairly quickly. Talk about the general problems of latency with data centers and how Natick is different.

Ben Cutler: So, there are some things that you do where latency really doesn’t matter. But I think latency gets you in all sorts of ways, and in sometimes surprising ways. The thing to remember is, even if you’re just browsing the web, when a webpage gets painted, there’s all of this back-and-forth traffic. And so, ok, so I’ve got now a data center that’s, say, 1,000 kilometers away, so it’s going to be 10 milliseconds, roundtrip, per each communication. But I might have a couple hundred of those just to paint one webpage. And now all of a sudden it takes me like 2 seconds to paint that webpage. Whereas it would be almost instantaneous if that data center is nearby. And think about, also, I’ve got factories and automation and I’ve got to control things. I need really tight controls there in terms of the latency in order to do that effectively. Or imagine a future where autonomous vehicles become real and they’re interacting with data centers for some aspect of their navigation or other critical functions. So, this notion of latency really matters in a lot of ways that will become, I think, more present as this idea of intelligent edge grows over time.

Host: Right. And so, what’s Natick’s position there?

Ben Cutler: So, Natick’s benefit here, is more than half the world’s population lives within a couple hundred kilometers of the ocean. And so, in some sense, you’re finding a way to put data centers very close to a good percentage of the population. And you’re doing it in a way that’s very low impact. We’re not taking land because think about if I want to put a data center in San Francisco or New York City. Well turns out, land’s expensive around big cities. Imagine that. So, this is a way to go somewhere where we don’t have some of those high costs. And, potentially, with this offshore renewable energy, and not, as we talked about before, having any impact on the water supply.

Host: So, it could solve a lot of problems all at once.

Ben Cutler: It could solve a lot of problems in this very, sort of, environmentally sustainable way, as well as, in some sense, adding these socially sustainable factors as well.

Host: Yeah. Talk a little bit about the phases of this project. I know there’s been more than one. You alluded to that a little bit earlier. But what have you done stage wise, phase wise? What have you learned?

Ben Cutler: So, Phase 1 was a Proof of Concept, which is literally, we built a can, and that can had a single computer rack in it, and that rack only had 24 servers. And that was about one-third of the space of the rack. It was a standard, what we call, 42U rack, which reflects the size of the rack. Fairly standard for data centers. And then other two thirds were filled with what we call load trays. Think of them as, all they do is, they’ve got big resistors that generate heat. So, it’s like hairdryers. And so, they’re used, actually, today in data centers to just, sort of, commission new data centers. Test the cooling system, actually. In our case, we just wanted to generate heat. Could we put these things in the water? Could we cool it? What would that look like? What would be the thermal properties? So, that was a Proof of Concept just to see, could we do this? Could we just, sort of, understand the basics? Were our intuitions right about this? What sort of problems might we encounter? And just, you know, I hate to use… but, you know, get our feet wet. Learning how to interact…

Host: You had to go there.

Ben Cutler: It is astonishing the number of expressions that relate to water that we use.

Host: Oh gosh, the puns are…

Ben Cutler: It’s tough to avoid. So, we just really wanted to get some sense of, what it like was to work with the marine industry? Every company and, to some degree, industry, has ways in which they work. And so, this was really an opportunity for us to learn some of those and become informed, before we go to this next stage that we’re at now. Which is more as a prototype stage. So, this vessel that we built this time, is about the size of a shipping container. And that’s by intent. Because then we’ve got something that’s of a size that we can use standard logistics to ship things around. Whether the back of a truck, or on a container ship. Again, keeping with this idea of, if something like this is successful, we have to think about what are the economics of this? So, it’s got 12 racks this time. It’s got 864 servers. It’s got FPGAs, which is something that we use for certain types of acceleration. And then, each of those 864 servers has 32 terabytes of disks. So, this is a substantial amount of capability. It’s actually located in the open ocean in realistic operating conditions. And in fact, where we are, in the winter, the waves will be up to 10 meters. We’re at 36 meters depth. So that means the water above us will vary between 26 and 46 meters deep. And so, it’s a really robust test area. So, we want to understand, can this really work? And what, sort of, the challenges might be in this realistic operating environment.

Host: So, this is Phase 2 right now.

Ben Cutler: This is Phase 2. And so now we’re in the process of learning and collecting data from this. And just going through the process of designing and building this, we learned all sorts of interesting things. And so, turns out, when you’re building these things to go under the ocean, one of the cycling that you get is just from the waves going by. And so, as you design these things, you have to think about how many waves go by this thing over the lifetime? What’s the frequency of those waves? What’s the amplitude of those waves? And this all impacts your design, and what you need to do, based on where you’re going to put it and how long it will be. So, we learned a whole bunch of stuff from this. And we expect everything will all be great and grand over the next few years here. But we’ll obviously be watching, and we’ll be learning. If there is a next phase, it would be a pilot. And now we’re talking to build something that’s larger scale. So, it might be multiple vessels. There might be a different deployment technology than what we used this time, to get greater efficiency. So, I think those are things that, you know, we’re starting to think about, but mostly, right now, we’ve got this great thing in the water and we’re starting to learn.

Host: Yeah. And you’re going to leave it alone for 5 years, right?

Ben Cutler: This thing will just be down there. Nothing will happen to it. There will be no maintenance until it’s time to retire the servers, which, in a commercial setting, might be every 5 years or longer. And then we’ll bring it back. So, it really is the idea of a lights-out thing. You put it there. It just does its thing and then we go and pull it back later. In an actual commercial deployment, we’d probably be deeper than 36 meters. The reason we’re at 36 meters, is, it turns out, 40 meters is a safe distance for human divers to go without a whole lot of special equipment. And we just wanted that flexibility in case we did need some sort of maintenance or some sort of help during this time. But in a real commercial deployment, we’d go deeper, and one of the reasons for that, also, is just, it will be harder for people to get to it. So, people worry about physical security. We, in some sense, have a simpler challenge than a submarine because a submarine is typically trying to hide from its adversaries. We’re not trying to hide. If we deploy these things, we’d always be within the coastal waters of a country and governed by the laws of that country. But we do also think about, let’s make this thing safe. And so, one of the safety aspects is not just the ability to detect when things are going around you, but also to put it in a place where it’s not easy for people to go and mess with it.

Host: Who’s using this right now? I mean this is an actual test case, so, it’s a data center that somebody’s accessing. Is it an internal data center or what’s the deal on that?

Ben Cutler: So, this data center is actually on our global network. Right now, it’s being used by people internally. We have a number of different teams that are using it for their own production projects. One group that’s working with it, is we have an organization inside Microsoft called AI for Earth. We have video cameras, and so, one of the things that they do is, they’re watching the different fish going by, and other types of much more bizarre creatures that we see. And characterizing and counting those, and so we can kind of see how things evolve over time. And one of the things we’re looking to do, potentially, is to work with other parties that do these more general assessments and then provide some of those AI technologies to them for their general research of marine environment and how, when you put different things in the water, how that affects things, either positively or negatively. Not just, sort of, what we’re doing, but other types of things that go in the water which might be things as simple as cables or marine energy devices or other types of infrastructure.

Host: I would imagine, when you deploy something in a brand-new environment, that you have unintended consequences or unexpected results. Is there anything interesting that’s come out of this deployment that you’d like to share?

Ben Cutler: So, I think when people think of the ocean, they think this is like a really hostile and dangerous place to put things. Because we’re all used to seeing big storms, hurricanes and everything that happens. And to be sure, right at that interface between land and water is a really dangerous place to be. But what you find is that, deep under the waves on the seabed, is a pretty quiet and calm place. And so, one of the benefits that we see out of this, is that even for things like 100-year hurricanes, you will hear, acoustically, what’s going on, on the surface, or near the land… waves crashing and all this stuff going on. But it’s pretty calm down there. The idea that we have this thing deep under the water that would be immune to these types of things is appealing. So, you can imagine this data center down there. This thing hits. The only connectivity back to land is going to be fiber. And that fiber is largely glass, with some insulating shell, so it might be fuse so it will break off. But the data center will keep operating. Your data center will still be safe, even though there might be problems on land. So, this diversity of risk is another thing that’s interesting to people when we talk about Natick.

Host: What about deployment sites? How have you gone about selecting where you put Project Natick and what do you think about other possibilities in the future?

Ben Cutler: So, for this Phase 2, we’re in Europe. And Europe, today, is the leader in offshore renewable energies. Twenty-nine of the thirty largest offshore windfarms are located in Europe. We’re deployed at the European Marine Energy Center in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. The grid up there is 100% renewable energy. It’s a mix of solar and wind as well as these offshore energies that people are testing at the European Marine Energy Center or EMEC. So, tidal energy and wave energy. One of the things that’s nice about EMEC is people are testing these devices. So, in the future, we have the option to go completely off this grid. It’s 100% renewable grid, but we can go off and directly connect to one of those devices and test out this idea of a co-location with renewable energies.

Host: Did you look at other sites and say, hey, this one’s the best?

Ben Cutler: We looked at a number of sites. Both test sites for these offshore renewables as well as commercial sites. For example, go into a commercial windfarm right off the bat. And we just decided, at this research phase, we had better support and better capabilities in a site that was actually designed for that. One of the things is, as I might have mentioned, the waves there get very, very large in the winter. So, we wanted some place that had very aggressive waters so that we know that if we survive in this space that we’ll be good pretty much anywhere we might choose to deploy.

Host: Like New York. If you can make it there…

Ben Cutler: Like New York, exactly.

Host: You can make it anywhere.

Ben Cutler: That’s right.

(music plays)

Host: what was your path to Microsoft Research?

Ben Cutler: So, my career… I would say that there’s been very little commonality in what I’ve done. But the one thing that has been common is this idea of taking things from early innovation to market introduction. So, a lot of my early career was in startup companies, either as a founder or as a principle. I was in super computers, computer storage, video conferencing, different types of semiconductors, and then I was actually here at Microsoft earlier, and I was working in a group exploring new operating system technologies. And then, after that, I went to DARPA, where I was there for a few years working on different types of information technology. And then I came back here. And, truthfully, when I first heard about this idea that they were thinking about doing these underwater data centers, it just sounded like the dumbest idea to me, and… But you know, I was willing to go and then, sort of, try and think through, ok, on the surface it sounds ridiculous. But a lot of things start that way. And you have to be willing to go in, understand the economics, understand the science and the technology involved, and then draw some conclusion of whether you think that can actually go somewhere reasonable.

Host: As we close, Ben, I’m really interested in what kinds of people you have on your team, what kinds of people might be interested in working on Special Projects here. Who’s a good fit for a Special Projects research career?

Ben Cutler: I think we’re looking for people who are excited about the idea of doing something new and don’t have fear of doing something new. In some sense, it’s a lot like people who’d go into a startup. And what I mean by that is, you’re taking a lot more risk, because I’m not in in a large organization, I have to figure out a lot of things out myself, I don’t have a team that will know all these things, and a lot of things may fall on the floor just because we don’t have enough people do get everything done. It’s kind of like driving down the highway and you’re, you know, lashed to the front bumper of the car. You’re fully exposed to all the risk and all the challenges of what you’re doing. And you’re, you know, wide open. There’s no end of things to do and you have to figure out what’s important, what to prioritize, because not everything can get done. But have the flexibility to really, then, understand that even though I can’t get everything done, I’m going to pick and choose the things that are most important and really drive in new directions without a whole lot of constraints on what you’re doing. So, I think that’s kind of what we look to. I have only two people who actually directly report to me on this project. That’s the team. But then I have other people who are core members, who worked on it, who report to other people, and then across the whole company, more than two hundred people touched this Phase 2, in ways large and small. Everything from helping us design the data center, to people who refurbished servers that went into this. So, it’s really a “One Microsoft” effort. And so, I think that there’s always opportunities to engage, not just by being on a team, but interacting and providing your expertise and your knowledge base to help us be successful. Because only in that way that we can take these big leaps. And so, in some sense, we’re trying to make sure that Microsoft Research is really staying true to this idea of pursuing new things but not just five years out, in known fields, but look at these new fields. Because the world is changing. And so, we’re always looking for people who are open to these new ideas and frankly are willing to bring new ideas with them as to where they think we should go and why. And that’s how we as a company I think grow and see new markets and are successful.

(music plays)

Host: Ben Cutler, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for coming on the podcast today.

Ben Cutler: My pleasure as well.

To learn more about Ben Cutler, Project Natick, and the future of submersible data centers, visit natick.research.microsoft.com.

 

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