Microsoft’s underwater data centre

The Northern Isles data center was recently lifted from the ocean floor in a day-long operation, and teams swooped in to analyse the hardware, and the results coming out of the project are surprisingly impressive.

By   |  Published: 1st Oct 2020  5:44 pm

Microsoft sank a shipping container-sized data centre 117 feet deep in the seafloor off Scotlands Orkney Islands in 2018 as part of its Project Natick. The Northern Isles data center was recently lifted from the ocean floor in a day-long operation, and teams swooped in to analyse the hardware, and the results coming out of the project are surprisingly impressive. Let’s read in detail what the entire project is all about. 

Microsoft initiated Project Natick to see if placing servers underwater could help solve some of the key challenges associated with managing the explosive demand for cloud services. Some of these challenges include reducing cooling costs, deploying data centers faster by avoiding potentially time-consuming issues like obtaining permits and other construction issues, and reducing latency by closing the distance to populations – half of the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the sea – and thereby speeding data transmission.

What are data centres?

A data centre is an area that is dedicated to housing computer infrastructure, including networks, telecommunication, processors, and back-up systems. Such an area can be a floor in a building, the basement, or even an entire warehouse, and these areas often have some of the strictest security systems.

Data centres are one of the most critical pieces of infrastructure to date and provide most computer services globally, including hosting websites, streaming video, providing large-scale scientific research, and development of next-generation AI.

Why underwater project

The underwater datacenter concept splashed onto the scene at Microsoft in 2014 during ThinkWeek, an event that gathers employees to share out-of-the-box ideas. The concept was considered a potential way to provide lightning-quick cloud services to coastal populations and save energy.

More than half of the world’s population lives within about 120 miles of the coast. By putting datacenters in bodies of water near coastal cities, data would have a short distance to travel to reach coastal communities, leading to fast and smooth web surfing, video streaming and game playing as well as authentic experiences for AI-driven technologies.

From France to Scotland

Project Natick’s 40-foot long Northern Isles datacenter is loaded with 12 racks containing a total of 864 servers and associated cooling system infrastructure. The datacenter was assembled and tested in France and shipped on a flatbed truck to Scotland where it was attached to a ballast-filled triangular base for deployment on the seabed.

At the deployment site, a remotely operated vehicle retrieved a cable containing the fiber optic and power wiring from the seafloor and brought it to the surface where it was checked and attached to the datacenter, and the datacenter powered on.

Powered by renewable energy

The European Marine Energy Centre is a test site for experimental tidal turbines and wave energy converters that generate electricity from the movement of seawater. Tidal currents there travel up to nine miles per hour at peak intensity and the sea surface regularly roils with 10-foot waves that whip up to more than 60 feet in stormy conditions.

Onshore, wind turbines sprout from farmers’ rolling fields and solar panels adorn roofs of centuries-old homes, generating more than enough electricity to supply the islands’ 10,000 residents with 100 percent renewable energy.

 A cable from the Orkney Island grid sends electricity to the datacenter, which requires just under a quarter of a megawatt of power when operating at full capacity.


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