Clouds under the sea: Microsoft deploys its Project Natick data center off the coast of Scotland

Spencer Fowers, senior member of technical staff for Microsoft’s special projects research group, prepares Project Natick’s Northern Isles datacenter for deployment off the coast of the Orkney Islands in Scotland. The datacenter is secured to a ballast-filled triangular base that rests on the seafloor. (Photo and caption courtesy Microsoft / Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

Microsoft kicked off the second phase of its experimental underwater data center project Wednesday, submerging a shipping-container sized data center with 864 servers near the Orkney Islands in Scotland.

Back in 2016, Microsoft first tested its prototype underwater data center designs off the coast of California, hoping to prove the feasibility of a relatively portable data center design that could be placed near population centers as needed. This week a group of researchers deployed the first working production data center 117 feet below the surface of the sea, where it is designed to work without the need for maintenance for five years.

Engineers slide racks of Microsoft servers and associated cooling system infrastructure into Project Natick’s Northern Isles datacenter at a Naval Group facility in Brest, France. The datacenter has about the same dimensions as a 40-foot long ISO shipping container seen on ships, trains and trucks. (Photo and caption courtesy Microsoft / Frank Betermin.)

This particular data center is a fraction of the size of the modern data centers that power cloud computing operations like Microsoft Azure, but its portability and reliance on cold ocean water to keep the systems humming along make it very interesting. Cooling the servers inside a modern data center is almost as expensive as buying the equipment itself, and a networked sequence of underwater data centers could provide computing power to places around the world where environmental conditions make land-based data centers impractical.

Project Natick gets electrical power from a cable connected to a wind farm on the Orkney Islands, and that cable also serves as the conduit for the data processed under the sea. Eventually, Microsoft would like to marry Project Natick to experimental ocean turbines that use wave energy to generate electricity, which could make these data centers entirely self sufficient.

Project Natick’s Northern Isles datacenter is partially submerged and cradled by winches and cranes between the pontoons of an industrial catamaran-like gantry barge. At the deployment site, a cable containing fiber optic and power wiring was attached to the Microsoft datacenter, and then the datacenter and cable lowered foot-by-foot 117 feet to the seafloor. (Photo and caption courtesy Microsoft / Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures.)

There’s still a lot of research that needs to be done to make sure these designs are environmentally sustainable and reliable, and Microsoft will closely monitor the performance and environmental impact of this data center over the next year. The North Sea is a rather unforgiving body of water, with frequent storms and strong currents, and Microsoft believes that if Project Natick can work here, it can work in an awful lot of places around the globe.

And that could be an important step in the evolution of cloud computing. Real-time mobile and web applications are increasingly hamstrung by the speed of light; the data centers they rely on for computing power can often be too far away to avoid significant latency problems. If Microsoft could deploy dozens of these data centers off the coast of a heavily populated area like New York or Tokyo without boiling the ocean, it could provide computing capacity much closer to its end users.