Microsoft sinks data centre in sea near Orkney

It looks a bit like an oil tanker, but this large white metallic cylinder is actually a highly sophisticated data centre - and it's now lying on the seabed off the coast of Orkney.

The data centre is partially submerged and cradled by winches and cranes between the pontoons of an industrial catamaran-like gantry barge. Picture: Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures

The device is the work of Microsoft and it could remain underwater for up to five years as part of an investigation into energy efficiency.

The American tech giant describes such data centres as the backbone of the internet. With the demand for their resources across the computing industry growing exponentially, Microsoft wants to find a solution to data storage that provides both the speed people expect and capacity that is more environmentally sustainable.

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The date centre now on the Scottish seabed is part of Microsoft’s Project Natick. If successful, it could herald a new wave of data centres that can be deployed rapidly and inexpensively while increasing data speeds along coastal regions.

Spencer Fowers of Microsofts special projects research group seals a logo onto Project Naticks Northern Isles datacenter in preparation for deployment. Picture: Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures.

The device was launched on Friday and secured to a ballast-filled triangular base that rests on the seafloor.

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More than half of the world’s population lives within about 120 miles of the coast. By putting data centres in bodies of water near coastal cities, data would have a short distance to travel to reach coastal communities, leading to fast and smooth web surfing, video streaming and game playing as well as authentic experiences for AI-driven technologies.

Over the next 12 months, the Project Natick team will monitor and record the performance of the data cenre in Orkney. The first phase of Project Natick showed the underwater datacenter concept is feasible while phase two is focused on researching whether the concept is logistically, environmentally and economically practical.

“We think we actually get much better cooling underwater than on land,” Ben Cutler, the leader of Project Natick, told the BBC.

“Additionally because there are no people, we can take all the oxygen and most of the water vapour out of the atmosphere which reduces corrosion, which is a significant problem in data centres.”