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Blue Ocean Thinking: Microsoft Trumpets Underwater Data Centres

Microsoft has hauled an experimental underwater data centre out of the sea off Scotland’s Orkney Islands following what it hails as a successful two-year trial.

Dubbed Project Natick, the sealed, shipping-container-sized data centre was lowered to the seafloor in spring of 2018 to test the concept of underwater data centres. The now-proven hypothesis was that ocean-floor centres could improve reliability over land-based ones by eliminating variables such as corrosion from oxygen and humidity, temperature fluctuations, and bumps or jostles from people replacing broken components.

Ben Cutler, a project manager in Microsoft’s Special Projects research group who leads Project Natick, said that failure rates of the underwater components were one eighth of those on land; his team believes that the corrosion-resistant nitrogen atmosphere inside the container, as well as the absence of human bumps and jostles, contributed to this high reliability.

“I have an economic model that says if I lose so many servers per unit of time, I’m at least at parity with land. We are considerably better than that,” he said.

The Project Natick team is now in discussions with a team within Microsoft Azure looking to deploy tactical and critical data centres for customers anywhere in the world, said William Chappell, vice president of mission systems for Azure.

“We are populating the globe with edge devices, large and small. To learn how to make data centres reliable enough not to need human touch is a dream of ours,” he said.

Additionally, with more than half of the world’s population leaving within 200 kilometres of the coast, Microsoft believes that placing data centres offshore near major cities could provide faster service, as the data has a shorter distance to travel; cool sub-surface temperatures also support energy-efficient designs incorporating heat exchange technology commonly found on submarines.

According to Cutler, lessons learned from the project will be used to inform Microsoft’s data centre sustainability strategy for energy, waste, and water, and potential future underwater data centres could easily be powered by offshore wind farms.

“We are now at the point of trying to harness what we have done as opposed to feeling the need to go out and prove some more.

“We have done what we need to do. Natick is a key building block for the company to use if it is appropriate,” he said.

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