Sunday, April 1, 2012

Microsoft’s Polar Data Centres and World Wireless System




This past month has been quite unique for me with many messages going back and forth between myself and various Microsoft departments. Microsoft, being the reasonable people they are, has given me the green light to talk about one of their major projects. They were planning to announce it at the Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) but are happy for some information to be leaked early as a bit of a teaser i.e. what was talked about at the MVP Summit plus a few bits I have gathered from the net to put the pieces together.

How It All Began

Back in December, Microsoft announced the dates of the MVP Summit and sent out their usual pack of information about what products were going to be covered, the agenda, likely topics etc. My pack had an additional insert referring to a ‘special feedback session’ on the Wednesday (29 February). As I discovered a little later, only a few of us in the CRM MVP group had this. It also included a ‘special NDA’ agreement.

I am yet to discover how it happened but, in their rush to put the inserts in the pack, Microsoft appears to have used one of their standard journalist embargo documents as a template. The upshot being while the standard MVP NDA essentially says I can say nothing until Microsoft makes information public, this one just restricted public disclosure for 30 days i.e. until the end of March.

Here is the first page of the document (I’ve blurred out the body as it mentions dates and deadlines for the project which Microsoft do not want to be made public yet.)

obscured nda

Essentially you signed the document either physically or online and you were good for the three-hour session on the Wednesday morning.

How Did the Session Go?

The session was attended by MVPs across various ‘Microsoft cloud products’ e.g. SQL/Windows Azure, Dynamics CRM etc. but many may not have realised the loophole yet but, once they see my article, I imagine they will all be writing a piece on their take on the session.

The plan was for key Azure staff to be present but the Azure Leap Year bug meant all were out of action. However, key staff on the project, including some who had been on site, were there to present. We heard from two speakers mainly, both from Microsoft’s research division; Dr. Charles Lippit who specialises in transmission technologies and Max Bosgrove who was one of the pioneers of the server container design used by Microsoft throughout its data centers.

So What Is The Big News?

In short, Microsoft are halfway through building two major data centers at the north and south pole and using the Earth’s magnetic field for transmission. The centers will be complete near to the time of WPC (July this year), thus the announcement timing.

Given the technical nature of the subject, Microsoft only invited MVPs with an established physics or electrical engineering background. Of the CRM MVPs, two of us qualified. Myself (my university degree was in quantum mechanics) and George Doubinski (whose background is in nuclear physics).

Where Specifically Are They Located?

While the magnetic poles do shift over time, Microsoft has located the bases as close as they practically can to the magnetic poles’ current locations. In the Antarctic, this is Vostok Station. Its proximity to the south pole and existing magnetic research equipment there made it ideal. Drilling towards the magnetic pole, and also towards the essential thermal vents, had been started by the Russian researchers with drilling stopped last year with only a few hundred meters of ice to go (

In the Arctic, construction has begun on Ellesmere Island. The northern facility is starting from scratch, with learning from the construction of the southern base feeding into the design on the northern base.

How Will It Work?

Microsoft’s aim is for the stations to be self-operating, given the remote location. No ice trucks in Antarctica. Fortunately, Microsoft has already worked on a similar project with Antarctica New Zealand and extended it for remote management.

The container server farms, used by Microsoft in their data centers, were built to allow for scalability. A secondary advantage is that they are easy to ship and are ‘rugged-ised’ making them perfect for remote locations. Initially Microsoft is planning four containers at each location, giving a total of 8,000 servers. As Dynamics CRM Online runs on 1,000 servers (which seems incredulous to me), this should be plenty for an initial trial. Data will be backed up to the other station for redundancy.

Obviously cooling will not be a problem and the low temperatures will allow the servers to operate very efficiently. The lack of moisture in the air and the high wind means, in the case of Vostok Station, the air is blown directly through the server cluster. The plan is to emulate a similar setup at Ellesmere. The containers are traditionally water-cooled so to make them air-cooled required some minor modification.

In terms of power, while Vostok has its own power station, this would need to be manned for refuelling which rules it out. Both locations have geothermal sources so the plan is to use steam from these to generate power, as well as harness wind power, if available. After a bit of digging on the internet, I found this research with Microsoft’s Paul Allen as one of the investors. I am guessing this may be the source for this innovation. The heat removed from the servers will be recycled to either assist with steam generation or to heat the living quarters of the researchers.

In the case of the southern station, the thermal source lies underneath Lake Vostok. The plan is to work with the researchers to continue the drilling, ensure the lake remains untouched, while accessing the heat source for power generation. In return, Microsoft is funding all research conducted on Lake Vostok by the governing body, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR).


Ellesmere has sulphur springs which will be used in the same way, funding research and working with the University of Calgary's Arctic Institute of North America.

How Will Transmission Work?

This is the part of the project that piques my interest the most. In short, a large magnetic coil will be placed in the ground and be used to modulate the Earth’s magnetic field in much the same way a transmitter modifies a carrier wave to send a signal.

It turns out that the power required for this is quite small as the Earth is already generating the ‘carrier signal’ and the coil is merely fluctuating it to transmit data. While Microsoft believes they could cancel the magnetic field altogether, they see no benefit in this (and given the magnetic field of the Earth protects us from solar radiation via the Van Allen belt, that is probably a good thing). They also mentioned the ‘inductive feedback’ had a remote chance of reversing the magnetic poles but this was also dismissed as extremely unlikely.

The ‘signal’ then goes everywhere where a compass works. While large iron and magnetite deposits can interfere with the signal it is believed this will only affect a small fraction of urban areas.

Microsoft is referring to this as the WWS or World Wireless System. With exclusive access to the poles and a transmission system which can reach the world with minimal overheads, Microsoft sees this as their ‘next big thing’.

When Will The Project Be Complete?

This is the bit that Microsoft is very quiet about and thus the blurring of the NDA document. Construction can only really happen in the locations in the local summer, assuming weather conditions are right. This is why the Vostok data center compound is all but finished but Ellesmere is just beginning. Power generation via the thermal vents will be likely finalised next year but Microsoft is making no commitments on this.


My thoughts are this is an example of everything that makes Microsoft the great organisation it is. Innovative, game changing design combined with collaboration with government bodies and research organisations to generate a positive outcome for all involved. While Microsoft’s heritage is with traditional, on premise servers, this play, much like the Kinect play in the game console market, has the potential to put them in a commanding position of both the PaaS and SaaS markets.

Microsoft have created a web site for the WWS project with a lot more details which can be found here. Have a great day Winking smile


InteractivWebs said...

Like it man!

Lyfe said...

Wow! Any idea of how much power they are going to need to modulate the "carrier" signal and if the supposed geothermal vent will be enough to power it?

Matt Wittemann said...

Sounds like the race is on, what with Google's thinly-veiled attempt to crowdsource a lunar base station for inter-stellar wifi:

Ashish Mahajan said...

Looking at what lengths can Microsoft go to.....It is amazing!

Unknown said...

Ummmm . . . April Fools????? Duh!