Microsoft has sunk an 864 server, 27.6 petabyte data centre in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland’s Orkney Isles.
Powered by an undersea cable and renewable energy from the Isles, the facility is expected to run for five years as part of a continuing experiment in energy-saving large-scale water cooling by Microsoft. A data centre of this size typically uses over 40 of its overall energy consumption solely for cooling.
The undersea cooling experiment, dubbed Project Natick, is in the second phase of the company’s research into improving the energy efficiency of data centres. Microsoft also tested a much smaller, 300 PC, 3 metre by 2.13 metre data centre in shallow waters in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California in 2015. The Orkney phase of the experiment is 12.2 metres long and 3.18 metres wide and will do much more to test the logistical, environmental and economical practicalities of underwater data centre deployment.
One key thing Microsoft engineers will be closely monitoring is any need for hardware maintenance, as the current hope is for the data centre to reach the end of its deployment without any need for human inspection or interaction. At a depth of 117 metres below the surface, any failure of the technology would be costly to assess, let alone repair. The site was deliberately chosen for its harsh conditions, so the company expects if the centre works maintenance-free in this location it should work anywhere else in the world.
If all goes well the moonshot experiment would bring major benefits to several other areas of data centre deployment. For example, researchers have been warning that large server farms will increase their energy usage threefold over the next decade. In 2015 the world’s data centres used an estimated 416.2 terawatt hours of electricity, or about 3% of the overall supply. The entire UK’s total energy consumption that year was about 300 terawatt hours. Data centres also accounted for 2% of global carbon emissions, or about the same as the worldwide airline industry. A 40% reduction in energy usage by using naturally colder parts of the ocean would do much to reduce carbon footprints and improve the image of modern IT infrastructure.
This second phase of Project Natick is also powered by renewable energy from nearby wind farms and generators harnessing the power of waves off the coast. Microsoft has partnered with the European Marine Energy Centre to gain access to experimental tidal turbines which aim to convert the area’s nine mile per hour currents and 60-foot waves into energy. The nearby Orkneys also provide power from their existing array of wind turbines. Additionally, Microsoft hopes to see benefits from having data centres deployed so close to the world’s large coastal populations, thereby improving download and upload speeds for many previously more isolated communities.