Microsoft Raises Orkney Undersea Data Centre

Microsoft has raised the second data centre it had sunk deep within the ocean, in an energy efficiency experiment.

Microsoft’s Project Natick is a moonshot experiment, and is part of Redmond’s attempt to develop more environmentally sustainable data centres.

Microsoft had sunk its second undersea data centre near the Orkney islands back in June 2018, and the Project Natick team spent the subsequent time monitoring and recording the performance of the subsea data centre.

Cooling, reliability

Microsoft said that it had completed the raising of its subsea data centre at the bottom of the North Sea on 9 July.

Raising the data centre took one day, and its researchers are assessing how it has performed, and what they can learn from it about energy efficiency.

But it seems that so far the results are promising, with the undersea data centre experiencing a lower failure rate than a conventional data centre.

The idea is that a sealed container on the ocean floor could provide ways to improve the overall reliability of data centres.

On land, corrosion from oxygen and humidity, temperature fluctuations and bumps and jostles from people who replace broken components are all variables that can contribute to equipment failure.

“The servers in Natick Northern Isles showed a failure rate of 1/8th that of our land-based control group,” said Redmond.

It added that Natick was used to perform Covid-19 research for Folding at Home and World Community Grid.

Microsoft said that the steel pressure vessel, heat exchangers, servers, and all other components will be recycled, and the sea bed is being restored to the same state it was in before the data centre was deployed.

It should be noted that Microsoft’s undersea data centre is essentially a white cylinder containing 12 racks containing a total of 864 servers inside, and was build to survive on the sea floor off the coast of the Orkney Islands in Scotland for up to five years.

Microsoft provided a brief snapshot video of the data centre being raised, here.

First experiment

But it should be noted that this is not the first time Microsoft has done this.

Back in 2016, Microsoft sank its first Project Natick data centre off the coast of Seattle for a period of four months.

The first phase of Project Natick (in 2016) showed the underwater data centre concept was feasible, while phase two was focused on researching whether the concept is logistically, environmentally and economically practical.

Microsoft had first come up with the idea thanks to an ex-US Navy submariner who then worked at Microsoft. He submitted a paper analysing the potential of underwater data centres.

In late 2014, Microsoft had started work on Project Natick, and the idea was to build larger capsules that could successfully house Microsoft cloud services such as Azure and Office 365.

Green idea

But why place a data centre in the ocean in the first place?

Well, Microsoft’s reasoning for Project Natick has always been that up to 50 percent of the world’s population lives near the coast, so why not bring the data to them?

And by placing data centres underwater, it would also solve the problem of cooling the servers.

Previously data centres have been placed in mines or places with huge amounts of renewable energy such as in Iceland or the Orkney Islands.

Microsoft also wants to connect the undersea data centre to wind turbines or tidal energy systems to generate power, so that they are powered entirely by renewable energy.

Microsoft said that in the future the capsules could stay underwater without the need for engineers for up to 20 years.

But getting to the data centre to carry out repairs will not be possible.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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