Sunday, 19 November 2017
News Tech

Microsoft, Facebook Run Fastest-Ever Cable Underneath the Atlantic


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Microsoft, Facebook, and Telxius have finished their joint effort to run a massive bandwidth pipe 4,100 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. The new cable can transmit 160 terabits per second (20TBps). That’s rather a lot. The Marea cable is 17,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, at pressures that would crush the human body like a beer can.

The cable connects Virginia to Spain, from its starting point at Virginia Beach to Bilbao. The Marea is just one of the many cables that link the United States to the rest of the world, but it’s now the fastest cable — and it doesn’t follow the same route as previous cables did. That’s a deliberate choice that Microsoft made to limit the potential damage if one or more of the cables on the ‘main’ route was broken. These kind of breakages do happen, typically by accident, and they can leave significant parts of a country with either no Internet at all, or a very limited pipeline. The United States is arguably at less risk of being disrupted than some other countries, thanks to a plethora of connections and the fact that many domains and services are hosted domestically, rather than being accessed remotely, but we’d still feel the effects of any significant disruption. The Marea cable is partly meant to guard against that problem.

The impetus for the cable project was Hurricane Sandy, which hit the East Coast back in 2012. The storm and its associated storm surge did significant damage to computer networks, cell phone towers, and other infrastructure, particularly in New Jersey and New York City.

“It was a major disruption,” says Frank Rey, director of global network strategy for Microsoft’s Cloud Infrastructure and Operations division. “The entire network between North America and Europe was isolated for a number of hours. For us, the storm brought to light a potential challenge in the consolidation of transatlantic cables that all landed in New York and New Jersey.”

submarine-cable-map

Cable networks across the globe.

According to Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, the cable was also deployed to meet the growing need for bandwidth between the United States, Europe, and Africa. Cables between the US and Europe already carry 55 percent more traffic than US-Pacific links, and 40 percent more traffic than the links between the US and Latin America.

Microsoft’s notes the cable is over 4,000 miles long, weighs 10.25 million pounds, and is the approximate weight of 34 blue whales. On the one hand, the blue whale is the heaviest and largest animal alive today, and may be the heaviest and largest animal to have lived. On the other, it’s really odd to measure things with whales. Then again, we measure lots of things with Rhode Island, for reasons that have never been entirely clear.

Fun fact: According to Randall Munroe, a 747 at full thrust is powerful enough to balance the weight of a single blue whale. If a 747 can balance a blue whale, and Microsoft’s Marea cable weighs as much as 34 blue whales, how many blue whales does it take to cover and/or sink Rhode Island? The answer would require calculating how much isostatic depression each whale would create per foot and how much weight it would take to sink the state. Topographic maps are probably a must. Bonus points for calculating Rhode Island’s average height above sea level during the last ice age, when billions of tons of ice depressed continents all around the world.



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