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Microsoft’s Project Natick Proves That Data Centres Can Operate Underwater
October 12, 2020 News


On July 9th this year, Microsoft retrieved its shipping-container-sized data centre that has been submerged 117-feet deep on the seafloor of Scotland’s Orkney Islands since spring 2018, as part of the company’s Project Natick that aims to determine the feasibility of subsea data centres powered by offshore renewable energy.

Enclosed in a submarine vessel made by Naval Group, a 400-year old France-based company with global expertise in marine energy technologies as part of a partnership with Microsoft, the Project Natick’s 40-foot long data centre is loaded with 12 racks containing a total of 864 servers and the associated cooling system infrastructure.

The underwater ship was left filled with dry nitrogen as part of the experiment and was deployed at the European Marine Energy Centre, a test site for tidal turbines and wave energy converters. Tidal currents there can travel at up to 9 miles per hour at peak intensity and the sea surface roils with waves that reach more than 60 feet in stormy conditions.

These conditions allow the Project Natick team to draw conclusions from such an environment, as they are also planning to install data centres on a larger scale and anywhere in the world. Add to that is the project’s source of energy, which in this case is from Orkney Islands’ 100% renewable energy coming from wind turbines and solar panels.

The team hypothesises that the atmosphere of nitrogen (which is less corrosive than oxygen), as well as the absence of temperature fluctuations and people to bump and jostle components, can significantly prolong the lifespan and reliability of data centres. If the analysis proves this correct, the team may be able to translate the findings to land data centres.

“We know if we can put something in here and it survives, we are good for just about any place we want to go”, said Ben Cutler, a project manager in the special projects group within Microsoft’s research organisation who leads the Project Natick team.

The team is aiming for energy self-sufficient data centres so that it can benefit customers especially in offshore areas and as per Microsoft’s research, more than half of the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the coast. By putting these highly reliable and self-sufficient data centres underwater near coastal cities, data would have a short distance to travel and they would be able to provide low latency connections for a wide variety of use cases.

Overall, the project found that data centres deployed underwater are eight times more reliable than their land-based substitutes – Microsoft is still studying the contributing factors. As of now, we only saw the plausibility of underwater data centres and we should look forward to the next stage where Microsoft is thinking about the potential future of Project Natick, centred on how to scale-up underwater data centres to power the full suite of Microsoft Azure cloud services, which may require linking together a dozen or more vessels.