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Microsoft will no longer explore underwater data centres

Written by Tue 25 Jun 2024

Image Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft has confirmed that the underwater data centre first proposed in 2013 is no longer an area of interest.

Project Natick, was deemed ‘logistically, economically, and environmentally practical’ as recently as 2020.

While Microsoft has discontinued its underwater data centre investigations, the company remains committed to utilising the learnings it gained from Project Natick. In a statement, the company highlighted the ongoing importance of the project’s findings.

“While we don’t currently have data centres in the water, we will continue to use Project Natick as a research platform to explore, test, and validate new concepts around data centre reliability and sustainability,” said Microsoft to Data Center Dynamics.

The First Subsea Data Centre

Project Natick began in 2013 with the ambitious goal of determining the feasibility of submerging data centres underwater. The project aimed to leverage the consistent temperature of the ocean to cool the data centre, improving the efficiency and sustainability of data centre operations.

Phase I of Project Natick occurred in 2018 when a data centre composed of 855 servers was deployed off the coast of Scotland and remained operational for two years.

In 2020, Microsoft brought the data centre back to the surface to study the outcome and found better-than-average results, with only six server failures for the two-year operation.

A typical data centre of the same size would have an average of eight server failures in the same time period. The better-than-average results were attributed to the stable external temperatures and the use of inert nitrogen gas, which reduced the reactive effects normally seen in the oxygen-rich environments of land-based data centres.

Lessons from the Deep

The insights gained from Project Natick can be applied to non-subsea data centres, including the potential for unmanned data centres utilising robotics for hardware maintenance and activities.

Noelle Walsh, Microsoft’s head of Cloud Operations and Innovation (CO+I), emphasised the operational knowledge gained from Project Natick.

“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,” said Walsh.

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Written by Tue 25 Jun 2024

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