Microsoft recovers underwater data centre in Scotland after two years

15 September 2020 | Abigail Opiah

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Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) retrieved the data centre that it sank off the coast of Orkney, Scotland in an experiment two years ago.

The company revealed that the retrieval launched the final phase of a years-long effort that proved the concept of underwater data centres is feasible, as well as logistically, environmentally and economically practical.

Microsoft’s Project Natick team deployed the Northern Isles data centre 117 feet deep to the seafloor in spring 2018.

For the next two years, Microsoft’s team members tested and monitored the performance and reliability of the data centre’s servers.

“We are populating the globe with edge devices, large and small,” said William Chappell, vice president of mission systems for Azure.

“To learn how to make data centres reliable enough not to need human touch is a dream of ours.”

The concept of the underwater data centre was considered a potential way to provide quick cloud services to coastal populations and save energy.

Microsoft added that with more than half the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the coast, putting data centres underwater near coastal cities, the data would have a short distance to travel, leading to faster web surfing, video streaming and game playing.

Two years underwater provided time for a thin coat of algae and barnacles to form, and for sea anemones to grow to cantaloupe size in the sheltered nooks of its ballast-filled base.

Orkney was chosen for the trial by Microsoft, because it was a centre for renewable energy research in a place where the climate was temperate, and the idea was that the cost of cooling computers would be lower if they were underwater.

“We have been able to run really well on what most land-based data centres consider an unreliable grid,” said Spencer Fowers, a principal member of technical staff for Microsoft’s Special Projects research group.

“We are hopeful that we can look at our findings and say maybe we don’t need to have quite as much infrastructure focused on power and reliability.”