Microsoft’s Underwater Data Centre Project Comes To An End

In recent months, there have been frequent conversations about what we call “data centres”, especially with big tech companies like Google having invested almost £1 million for a UK data centre, earlier this year. If you’re wondering what exactly a data centre is, they’re hubs that store, distribute and manage huge amounts of data that power the internet and cloud computing.

These centres, powered by servers that in turn need cooling systems because they’re so big, are responsible for powering different tech solutions with the most energy, a big example is with AI.

Have You Heard Of Underwater Data Centres?

To decrease the amount of energy needed of these centres, the solution of underwater data centres has come about, where they are instead built under the sea. So, a few years ago, Microsoft began their venture with Project Natick. This was their first experimentation project for these underwater data centres.

Ben Cutler, the project manager at Microsoft, explains the purpose of this, “We’re pushing the boundaries on the energy efficiency of data centres, taking advantage of the natural cooling properties of the sea.”

It has had multiple phases and deployments in different locations. The initial prototype, called the Leona Philpot, was deployed off the coast of California in the Pacific Ocean during a trial phase in 2015. This was successful, so the Project expanded.

The Northern Isles data centre, which is often referred to in the discussions about Project Natick, was deployed in the North Sea near the Orkney Islands in Scotland. This deployment was more extensive, made to test how operational and environmentally sustainable bigger underwater data centres are.


The End Of Natick Has Been Announced

But now, Microsoft has officially ended Project Natick. Noelle Walsh, the head of Microsoft’s Cloud Operations + Innovation (CO+I) division, confirmed the conclusion of the project to Data Centre Dynamics.

She explained, “I’m not building subsea data centres anywhere in the world. My team worked on it, and it worked. We learned a lot about operations below sea level and vibration and impacts on the server. So, we’ll apply those learnings to other cases.”

What Did They Take From Project Natick?

Although Microsoft has discontinued actively building new underwater data centres, the knowledge now gained from Project Natick is being applied to other research areas, such as the development of liquid immersion cooling techniques and further advancements in sustainability practices within their global data centre operations.

They also looked at the use of nitrogen gas within the data centre to reduce corrosion and hardware degradation that typically take place when there’s exposure to oxygen.

Microsoft observed that the failure rate of servers in the underwater data centre was just 1/8 (an eighth) of those on land. The controlled underwater conditions, particularly the lack of oxygen and consistent cooling, are a big reason why, so Natick was a successful run, after all.

Data Centre Dynamics also asked about Microsoft having data centres with robots working in them, and Walsh explained that they would be focused on using automation for handling the new, heavier servers, rather than replacing human jobs. “We are looking at robotics more from the perspective that some of these new servers will be very heavy. How can we automate that versus having people push things around?” Walsh said, adding that, “We’re also very cognisant that we need people. I don’t want people worried about their jobs.”