Everyone has heard of storing data in the cloud, but what about in the briny depths?
On Wednesday (June 6), Microsoft lowered a submarine-like data center into the ocean off the coast of Orkney — a group of islands near Scotland — as part of its efforts to boost internet speeds in coastal regions and support the world’s growing reliance on connected technologies, for both business and leisure purposes.
When technology is so easily accessed by just reaching into one’s pocket, it can be easy to forget what it takes to make it all work. It’s only when something goes wrong that users pause to think about the technology and sheer distances involved in moving information instantly to any point on Earth. It’s no easy feat ensuring that the planet’s 7 billion people can all connect to the global digital network. According to Microsoft, areas near water can be especially lacking in the infrastructure needed for demanding activities, such as video streaming and gaming, which is one reason the company decided to explore the possibility of underwater data centers.
The 40-foot vessel sunk on Wednesday represents Phase 2 of Microsoft’s Project Natick. It contains 12 racks of computers and 864 servers with an output comparable to several thousand high-end consumer PCs. The tech giant says it can hold data and process information for up to five years without maintenance. It is a follow-on to the company’s first prototype, launched in California in 2015.
If all goes well, Microsoft will later be able to position more underwater data centers closer to billions of people (almost half the world’s population), living near large bodies of water to support faster and smoother web browsing, as well as AI-driven technologies for businesses. The data centers could also prove critical to supporting consumers’ growing acceptance of and reliance upon connected devices. As more devices are developed and “plugged in,” the backbone of the internet will need reinforcement to bear the burden, and that’s exactly what Project Natick could create.
Microsoft notes that basing these data centers on land would drain far too much energy and would quickly become unsustainable, whereas placing them on the ocean floor can minimize energy usage by providing natural cooling.
Furthermore, the prototype in Orkney is running entirely on renewable energy produced by tidal turbines and wave energy converters at the European Marine Energy Center (EMEC). It is powered by an underwater cable linked back to the EMEC and uses less than a quarter of a megawatt of energy when operating at full capacity.
Cindy Rose, Chief Executive of Microsoft U.K., wrote in a blog post, “Creating solutions that are sustainable is critical for Microsoft, and Project Natick is a step [toward] our vision of data centres with their own sustainable power supply. … Only by demanding more of ourselves as a technology company will we meet the demands of our customers.”