In a first, Microsoft has submerged its data centers under the sea off the coast of Orkney in Scotland.
The tech giant has been working on underwater data centers for a few years under the project called Natick, having conducted their first successful tests in 2016. Two years later, now Microsoft has actually submerged its first data center several meters into the sea, contending that it will save the company the cost it takes to cool data centers on land.
Moreover, Microsoft believes that placing data centers under the sea will also help fight corrosion, which remains a major problem on land.
“We think we actually get much better cooling underwater than on land,” Ben Cutler, who is in charge of the project surrounding submerged data centers, told BBC.
“Additionally because there are no people, we can take all the oxygen and most of the water vapour out of the atmosphere which reduces corrosion, which is a significant problem in data centers.”
As Phys.org noted, the Northern Isles data center consists of a 40-foot (12.2-meter) long white cylinder containing 12 racks and 864 servers — but that’s enough space to contain as many as 5 million movies. Underwater sea cables will connect the data servers with land and Orkney’s energy system.
If Project Natick is successful, Microsoft will put up to five of these cylinders underwater at once, which will remain on the sea’s surface for five years.
The company will be able to deploy a data center offshore in 90 days, whereas on land, it could end up taking years.
Another important aspect of placing data centers under the sea has to do with the fact that half of the world’s population stays within 120 miles (200 km) off the coast, meaning data would have a short distance to travel to reach coastal communities.
One of the major issues that remain with placing data centers under the sea is the impossibility of repairing computer servers if they fail, but Microsoft engineers believe that it is a risk that must be taken with so many additional benefits coming out of the project.
The reason that Orkney was chosen by Microsoft was because of its renewable energy network of tidal power and wind turbines, which would power the data centers.
Submerging the world’s first data center has been a multinational affair, with France’s Naval building the cylinder, the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) providing its expertise with renewable energy in Orkney, and Microsoft building the servers.
There have been some apprehensions about an energy explosion in Orkney with the coming of Microsoft’s data centers, but EMEC’s chief Neil Kermode put those worries to rest.
“We’ve got so much renewable energy here,” he said.
Just as the space race marked the dawning of a new era, the placing of underwater data servers could begin a new era of competition among the big tech companies if Microsoft proves successful.