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Microsoft deploys underwater datacentre off the coast of Orkney

Microsoft is stepping up its research into the feasibility of using underwater datacentres to deliver low-latency cloud services to homes and businesses across the world

Microsoft has deployed a 40ft long underwater datacentre off the coast of the Orkney Islands near Scotland, as part of its ongoing research into the potential use cases for subsea server farms.

The unmanned facility contains more than 860 servers and is expected to stay in place for a year, with Microsoft engaging with French submarine engineering company, Navel Group, to design the vessel.

During that time, the performance of the facility will be closely monitored, Microsoft wrote in a blog post outlining the project. Its energy consumption, as well as the amount of sound and heat it gives off, will also be tracked.

The deployment falls under the remit of software giant’s Project Natick initiative, which Computer Weekly first reported on in February 2016, and is focused on determining how feasible it would be to build underwater datacentres powered by offshore renewable energy sources.

According to Microsoft, the Orkney project marks the start of the second phase of Project Natick, with the first phase serving to prove the underwater datacentre concept had legs. It is now time to see if it is “logistically, environmentally and economically practical”, the company said.

The Orkney datacentre, known as Northern Isles, requires just under a quarter of a megawatt of power when running at full capacity, which it draws from the island’s power grid.

The island itself runs exclusively on renewable power generated by its own wind turbines and residential solar panels, and is also a sizeable testbed for tidal energy generation.

“We know if we can put something in here and it survives, we are good for just about any place we want to go,” said Microsoft’s special projects researcher, Ben Cutler, in the blog post.

According to Microsoft, there are a number of economic and technical advantages to be had from using underwater datacentres. For example, the seawater surrounding the vessels would negate the need to rely on mechanical cooling methods to keep the equipment inside running at an optimal temperature.

Furthermore, the facilities could also potentially provide homes and businesses in coastal areas, particularly those in remote places with patchy internet connections, with easier access to low-latency cloud services, Microsoft claimed.

Datacentre industry watchers have largely been supportive of Microsoft’s subsea server farm research in the past, although Greenpeace previously aired concerns over the potential risk of thermal pollution occurring as a result of planting heat-discharging datacentres on the sea floor.

Read more about datacentre research

  • Underwater datacentres can help providers save on land costs and cooling, but at what cost to the environment?
  • Researchers, in collaboration with Microsoft and others, want to stamp out data processing delays in datacentres to improve user experience and energy efficiency.

Read more on Datacentre energy efficiency and green IT

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