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Microsoft Tests Underwater Datacenter for Energy Efficiency


By John Howell

With the blizzard of negative news about tech companies hogging the headlines recently, sometimes it’s been easy to forget how radical innovations in breakthrough technology are still being introduced by the tech giants.

Microsoft has launched Project Natick, an experiment with potentially large implications, by sinking a datacenter in the sea off the Scottish island of Orkney. Why this remote area? Orkney, at the northern tip of Great Britain, is a major center for renewable energy research. Companies such as the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), have been developing technology for tidal and wave energy for more than a decade.

The European Marine Energy Centre is a test site for experimental tidal turbines and wave energy converters that generate electricity from the movement of seawater. Tidal currents in the Orkneys travel up to nine miles per hour at peak intensity; the sea surface regularly roils with 10-foot waves that whip up to more than 60 feet in stormy conditions, says Microsoft.

The Orkney Islands have also been the site of the earliest UK wind energy efforts. Renewable energy generates 100% of the electricity production for the islands’ 10,000 residents.

The datacenter is a white cylinder containing computers and cooling systems. An undersea cable brings power to it and returns data to the Scottish shore, and then on to the wider internet, reports the BBC. The cylinder rests 117 feet under the surface, on a rock slab on the sea’s floor.

The main driver behind the project is the theory that the cost of cooling computers could be dramatically reduced by placing them beneath the frigid ocean waters off northern Scotland. Today, the world’s super servers are stored in giant warehouses that require massive amounts of energy to provide the air conditioning and humidity control they need to work properly.

The effect on the undersea environment is projected to be minimal. Microsoft Microsoft's Ben Cutler told the BBC that "the water just meters downstream would get a few thousandths of a degree warmer at most."

Project Natick contains just twelve racks of 864 servers, but if the experiment pans out, look for a shift toward moving millions of the Internet’s servers into undersea stations. Such a move would result in enormous reductions in energy use, which in turn could have a collateral benefit in mitigating climate change.

Photo: Microsoft