Microsoft has intentionally sunk their newest data centre off one of the Orkney islands, north of Scotland. The Redwood-based software giant placed twelve server racks in a cylinder, made by French shipbuilders Naval, which they then sent to the bottom of a harbour. The expectation is that cooling provided by the seawater surrounding Project Natick, the codename for the endeavour will make it cheaper to run data farms.
There are drawbacks, however. It will be impossible to repair any malfunctioning hardware that is in the cylinder. No humans are needed to operate the centre, and so oxygen and water vapour have been taken out of it. This will cause less corrosion, which contributes a lot to the wear and tear of servers.
This is the second phase of Project Natick and follows a similar experiment launched in 2015. Submerged for five months, Leona Philpot, the first ‘vessel’ in the project, was deemed a success by Microsoft. That centre was powered by conventional, rather than renewable means, but the second phase of the project hopes to iterate on that.
The Orkneys were chosen for their leading renewable energy research institutions, and it is hoped that by powering such submersibles using wind, solar, or tide generated power that it will reduce the carbon footprint of data farms. In 2016 data centres consumed 3% of the world’s power which contributed 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions. This is a similar amount to what the airline industry produces.
The European Marine Energy Centre was a key partner for Microsoft, hooking up the cylinder to mainland power, as well as providing a link to the internet, a vital piece of infrastructure for any data farm. The latest incarnation of Project Natick will remain underwater for a planned five years, twelve times as long as Leona Philpot, which was named after a character that appeared in the Halo universe of Xbox games. That character broke her neck while diving into a pool, perhaps an ominous name for such an ambitious piece of kit.
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