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Microsoft has reacted to the increase in power used by global data centres with a surprising idea: submerging one of their own data centres near the Orkney islands. With the future of green computing in their hands, it’s time for the Silicon Valley giant to sink or swim.


In an unusual scene off Orkney, a data centre the size of a shipping container and housing twelve server racks – enough space for five million movies – is lowered into the ocean by Microsoft and its partners.

This is the next phase of Project Natick, an initiative which aims to explore greener methods of cooling servers and lowering data centres’ reliance on energy. For the next five years, the data centre will sit beneath the waves a few miles off the coast – and when it emerges, it may have solved several growing issues for the computing world.


Introducing Project Natick

Surprisingly, Project Natick isn’t new. Rather, the Orkney test is the latest experiment under the Natick umbrella, receiving far more media attention than its 2015 predecessor, nicknamed Leona Philpot.

<image credit: Scott Eklund/Red Box pictures>

The initial phase came about in response to the news that currently 3% of the UK’s power is used by data centres. Factoring in the prominence of big data and similar demanding innovations forcing the need for a constant stream of new data centres, and the percentage is sure to increase over the coming years.

Microsoft’s decision to submerge centres rather than other alternatives is reportedly related to the proximity of half the world’s population to the coast – with many located no more than 200km from the shore – as well the potential for emissions-free cooling. The former shortens the distance that data must travel, reducing latency and making for a more efficient service, whilst the latter offers potential for a green future in computing.

If it’s successful, Project Natick may just allow us to continue expanding the number of centres on offer without the growing pressure on resources.


The Role of Renewable Energy

There’s more to the project than simply dropping a data centre into the water: Microsoft have partnered up with likeminded individuals to explore renewable energy’s role in maintaining a data centre, all whilst using existing logistics to bring the idea to fruition.

The data centre is connected to the Orkney power grid, requiring just under a quarter of a megawatt of power when operating at full capacity – an easy amount to provide, as Orkney’s early adoption of turbine power has left the 10,000 residents with more energy than they require.

What’s more, the Orkney Islands play host to the much-acclaimed European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), which allows innovators to test cutting-edge technologies in the sea. Microsoft’s Natick joins a long list of developers working with EMEC, with success stories including Atlantis, the world’s largest single-rotor tidal turbine. This relationship provides Microsoft with assurance that their project is taking the greenest route possible, accompanied by experts in the field.


Changing the Game

The entire purpose of Microsoft’s Project Natick is to address the rapid growth of data centres around the world, whilst offering up potential alternatives when it comes to powering and maintaining such growing demand.

If all goes to plan, then the project will successfully change the landscape, allowing Microsoft to push ahead with plans for multiple offshore data centres, allowing for faster data transmission and greater coverage – both of which are beneficial to the development of technological innovations such as AI.

Deploying these new data centres could also be much easier, thanks to Natick, with the average land-based centre taking roughly two years to construct, whilst the undersea equivalent takes just 90 days, allowing for Microsoft and their contemporaries to respond to demand more efficiently.

It’s not just speed, efficiency and use of renewable energy that offshore data centres can benefit from, either. By being underwater and away from the outside world, a data centre’s environment can be modified in a way which wouldn’t usually be safe to humans. In this case, oxygen and water vapour can be removed from within the casing to fend off corrosion – a major issue facing data centres.


The Future of Green Computing

There are, of course, also some hurdles to overcome – namely, if the equipment requires repair whilst submerged, engineers can’t reach it to fix the problem. Unfortunately, such risks are part and parcel of an experimental project such as Natick.

Whereas we won’t know if such a problem will arise, what we do know is this: this next phase of Project Natick is an important step towards a greener landscape in the technological world. Not only are the merits of renewable energy being recognised and applied to a problem in a crossover of existing technologies, we’re also seeing supply catch up to demand in a way that will allow the world to carry on growing its technological ambitions unhindered by the challenges associated with land-based data centres.

Whether or not Project Natick fails or succeeds, it will forever be remembered as an important moment in the story of computing, signposting a way to a much greener, more efficient future. In an unusual scene off the coast of the Orkney islands, Microsoft took the first step to making history – and it looked hopeful.


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