Microsoft retrieves data centre from Orkney

06 October 2020

Microsoft has retrieved an underwater data centre just off Scotland’s Orkney archipelago after two years of providing cloud services from the bottom of the ocean.

The 40-foot cylinder was descended into Scottish waters in spring 2018, powered by tidal turbines and wave energy converters.

Marine specialists took just a day to retrieve the data centre, which was coated in algae, barnacles and sea anemones from the seafloor after being deployed 117 feet deep – without affecting its operations.

Throughout its test period, ‘Project Natick’, as it is known to Microsoft, had a lower failure rate than a conventional data centres and reduced energy consumption.

Furthermore, the on-board servers – the physical electronic equipment that process data storage – were protected from the surrounding water, supporting customers of its Azure cloud services.

Microsoft Azure is now looking to serve customers who need to deploy and operate data centres anywhere in the world.

The data centre was originally deployed at the European Marine Energy Centre, a test site for tidal turbines and wave energy converters and stationed in waters off Orkney.

US firm Microsoft has been testing the feasibility of keeping data centres underwater in the long term, which helps to keep low and consistent temperatures.

Project Natick has proved the concept of underwater data centres is ”logistically, environmentally and economically practical”, it said.

When the Project Natick cylinder was hauled off the seabed around half a mile offshore, just eight out of the 855 servers on board had failed. Overall, the underwater data centre had one-eighth of the failure rate of a similar data centre on land.

All of Orkney’s electricity comes from wind and solar power, but there were no problems in keeping the underwater data centre supplied with power.

“We have been able to run really well on what most land-based data centres consider an unreliable grid,” says Spencer Fowers, one of the technical team on Project Natick. “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. We were pretty impressed with how clean it was, actually. It did not have a lot of hardened marine growth on it – it was mostly sea scum.”

The container was brilliant white when deployed two years ago, but upon retrieval it had a thin coat of algae and barnacles. After being power-washed, the data centre was transported to Orkney for tests to be carried out on it and samples sent for analysis at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington, US. Microsoft researchers believe a sealed container on the ocean floor could provide ways to improve the overall reliability of data processing.

Once analysis is completed, the steel pressure vessel, heat exchangers, servers and all other components will be recycled. n