Microsoft Sinks Second Data Centre Under The Sea Near Orkney

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

No more worry about cooling costs, when you sink a data centre deep within the ocean, claims Microsoft

Microsoft has taken the rather unusual step of sinking a data centre deep within the ocean, in an energy efficiency drive.

Microsoft’s Project Natick is a moonshot project at Redmond, and is part of the software giant’s attempt to develop more environmentally sustainable data centres.

In order to save on cooling costs, Microsoft’s undersea data centre is essentially a white cylinder containing 12 racks containing a total of 864 servers inside, and is build to survive on the sea floor off the coast of the Orkney Islands in Scotland for up to five years.

Phase one

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

Back in 2015, Microsoft sank its first Project Natick data centre off the coast of Seattle for four months.

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.

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 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.

And now Microsoft has announced that it is utilising technology from submarines and working with pioneers in marine energy for the second phase of its moonshot.

“That is kind of a crazy set of demands to make,” said Peter Lee, corporate vice president of Microsoft AI and Research, who leads the New Experiences and Technologies, or NExT, group. “Natick is trying to get there.”

Phase two

“For true delivery of AI, we are really cloud dependent today,” said Lee. “If we can be within one internet hop of everyone, then it not only benefits our products, but also the products our customers serve.”

Microsoft has now sunk the data centre near the Orkney islands (a video is available here) and over the next 12 months, the Project Natick team will monitor and record the performance of the data centre.

The first phase of Project Natick (in 2015) showed the underwater data centre concept is feasible while phase two is focused on researching whether the concept is logistically, environmentally and economically practical.

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