Microsoft’s New Data Center Sits at the Bottom of the Sea

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Generally, data centers are hidden away inside faceless warehouses and sport massive rows of computers and giant air conditioning units to keep things cool. But that’s not good enough for Microsoft, it crammed 12 racks of servers into a bus-sized metal cylinder and then sank it off the coast of northern Scotland, Orkney islands for its newest data center.

The company calls it Project Natick and sees the data center as one of many “environmentally sustainable, prepackaged data center units” that could be sold in the near future. This project has 12 racks containing a total of 864 servers and associated cooling system infrastructure. It is 40-foot-long and sits roughly 117 feet beneath the surface.

The submerging part of the project was handled by Naval Group, a 400-year old French company. Using a heat-exchange process mainly used for cooling submarines. Given the density of populations along the world’s coasts, Microsoft says subsea datacenters could make for more efficient web browsing, with the ability to support smoother video streaming and gameplay.

To get the data center to the seafloor, the team used winches, cranes, a gantry barge, and a remotely operated vehicle, ensuring it was all in place before the fiber optic cable was properly attached. Then, they powered it on. At full capacity, the system runs on less than a quarter of a megawatt of power, obtained from Orkney Island’s grid.

Computers often get warm, data centers, on the other, hand get scorching hot, and to keep them from overheating companies have to either install vast cooling fans or use supercooled liquid to keep them from melting. Instead, Project Natick literally places the computers into a naturally cold environment – the North Sea.

Microsoft is hoping to make Natick data centers run off 100% renewable resources by powering it with electricity from wind and tide-powered generators located nearby. Microsoft says, unlike brick-and-mortar data centers, usually require years of construction, it should be possible to build and deploy a Project Natick data center in just 90 days.

Project Natick centers are designed to operate independently without direct human supervision for up to five years at a time after which they can be retrieved and recycled. A serious question arises in this innovative approach, such as the potential impact of Project Natick on surrounding aquatic life due to increased water temperatures.