Microsoft Deploys Project Natick Self-Sustaining Underwater Data Center Off Scottish Coast

Microsoft is doing something that sounds very strange at first glance; it has taken a fully functional data center and sunk it into the dark ocean depths. The data center is crammed inside a giant white cylinder that is waterproof and the tube can sit on the ocean floor for up to five years. An undersea cable serves the power the data center needs and transfers data from the data center to the internet on shore.
sunk data center

Microsoft chose to place the data center in Europe off the shore of Orkney, a major center for renewable energy research, to try and determine if placing a data center under water could boost energy efficiency. It often costs huge amounts of money and consumes lots of power to keep a data center cool. Microsoft is testing the theory that the cold ocean depths can cut costs required to keep the data center cool. "We think we actually get much better cooling underwater than on land," says Ben Cutler, who is in charge of what Microsoft has dubbed Project Natick.

"Additionally because there are no people, we can take all the oxygen and most of the water vapour out of the atmosphere which reduces corrosion, which is a significant problem in data centres."

Microsoft is hoping that the offshore data center will have a lower failure rate than data centers on land. The software giant was able to cram 12 server racks into the data center, but those racks have enough storage for five million movies. If things work out as Microsoft hopes, the company foresees a time when it might be able to sink groups of five cylinders and deploy a data center offshore in 90 days. It would take years to deploy a similarly sized data center on the land. The biggest challenge for Microsoft is that you can’t send a network admin or service tech to fix any computers that go down when the data center is under water. 

sunk data center float

The data center is placed in a cylinder that was made by shipbuilder Naval. The undersea cable was developed by the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), a Microsoft partner in the project. EMEC's presence was one of the major factors that led Microsoft to choose the Orkney location. Some are concerned that sinking data centers could warm the water nearby, but Microsoft dismisses that concern.

sunk data center 2

Cutler says that any warming will be very minimal. He added, "the water just meters downstream would get a few thousandths of a degree warmer at most."