Microsoft submerges data center off Scotland's Orkney Islands

natick data center
© Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures

Two years ago Microsoft sunk a data center in the ocean on purpose. It was a 90-day proof of concept for technology that wedded submarine design and a bunch of servers anchored to the sea floor. Called Project Natick, the program aims to use ocean water to keep servers cool while also keeping data close to the areas where people are using it.

The project is now being tested on a slightly larger scale and for a longer duration. Microsoft has just sunk a 40-foot data center, roughly the size of a shipping container, off the coast of Scotland's Orkney Islands at the European Marine Energy Centre. The cylindrical vessel contains 864 servers, which could store five million movies and is capable of staying on the ocean floor for five years.

A undersea cable carries electricity coming from Orkney's wind farms and tidal power sources to the data center and also delivers data from the servers to the shore.

More than half the world's population lives within 120 miles of the coast and putting data centers right offshore of populated areas helps ensure quick and smooth data delivery.

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

The European Marine Energy Centre serves as a test site for tidal turbines and wave energy generators. The seas there have tidal currents that move at speeds as high as nine miles per hour and waves regularly reach 10 feet on a normal day and 60 feet during storms. The location is a prime spot to test the ruggedness of the data center while it also puts it in a renewable energy-rich environment.

The data center will remain submerged for at least a full year this time while researchers monitor its performance underwater. They'll be logging everything from power consumption to humidity levels and temperature. This latest experiment will hopefully lead to a future where data centers and ocean-based renewable energy co-exist side by side, giving us a greener and equally reliable internet.

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