Microsoft’s Undersea Data Center Has Been a Success. It Lasts Longer and Has Fewer Outages Than Terrestrial Centers

  • Project Natick's servers have been underwater off the Orkney Islands for two years.

  • Microsoft will optimize its data centers using what it learns from the experiment.

Microsoft’s undersea data center has been a success. It lasts longer and has fewer outages than terrestrial centers
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Project Natick was born in 2013. Eleven years ago, data centers were already common, although they had nowhere near the growth rate they’re experiencing today due to the rise of AI. Still, some Microsoft engineers devised a somewhat exotic experiment: It consisted of installing a data center inside a giant, hermetically sealed cylinder and submerging it at 36 meters off the Orkney Islands in Scotland.

The goal was to determine the feasibility of sustaining an undersea data center with 864 servers powered by renewable energy over the long-term. But that wasn’t all. They also wanted to compare the failure rate of the servers hosted in the underwater data center with the average rate experienced at data centers on land. The giant cylinder on this article’s cover was underwater for two years. However, Microsoft has just ended this original and exciting initiative.

Project Natick Has Been a Success, but Won’t Continue (for Now)

In 2020, when a team of experts recovered the undersea data center that had been submerged in the spring of 2018, Microsoft considered the experiment a success. And it had two good reasons. First, this initiative reliably demonstrated that it was possible to power this type of data center with renewable energy sources continuously. The second reason was just as important.

Only six of the 864 servers that engineers installed inside the sealed cylinder had failed.

Only six of the 864 servers that engineers installed inside the sealed cylinder had failed. The others were still working fine. To analyze the failure rate, Microsoft installed a land-based data center with the same characteristics, and during the same period, eight servers failed there.

According to Noelle Walsh, the head of cloud operations and innovation at Microsoft, the servers in the undersea data center have endured because the seawater’s temperature is very stable. In addition, the inert nitrogen that engineers used to protect the machines also helped extend their lifespan.

Walsh confirmed that Microsoft had completed the project after carefully analyzing all the data collected during the experiment. She also predicted that the company wouldn't install another undersea data center. However, everything its engineers have learned with Project Natick will be helpful in the development of future data centers.

In fact, Walsh claims they’ve learned a lot about optimizing cooling systems and designing solutions to ensure that neither vibration nor shock shorten the life of the servers. Interestingly, just a few months ago, China launched an experiment like the Microsoft project on the southern coast of Hainan—although we’ve yet to learn much about the initiative. Still, there’s no doubt that any innovation that helps reduce the environmental impact of data centers is welcome.

Image | Microsoft

More info | Data Centre Dynamics

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