In the News: Microsoft's Project Natick

In the News: Microsoft's Project Natick

The technological industry is an incredibly exciting field, with developments occurring left, right and center. As increasing amounts of our data is being stored in the ‘cloud’, there is an increasing concern about the demand for more data centres, and the effect this could have on the environment.


What is a Data Centre?

A data centre is a physical facility that businesses and organisations use to store their large amounts of data and applications, and consists of routers, switches, servers, storage systems etc [1]. Data centres have an environmental impact, including the need to for energy to help run the infrastructure, including power distribution, back-up generators and water is required for cooling [2].


Microsoft’s Project Natick

Microsoft recently conducted an experiment to learn about the performance of data centres, and more generally about the energy efficiency of cloud computing. The result of the experiment would help see if there is a way of reducing the impact that data centres have on the environment.

The experiment consisted of placing a data centre under the sea off the coast of Orkney in 2018. Orkney was chosen as it is a major hub for research into renewable energy, along with the fact it has a chilly climate. A cable, which runs under the sea, took power to the data centre, and brought back data to the shore and the wider internet.

The white capsule holding the data centre has recently been brought back to land, and although it is covered in algae and barnacles, the data centre was functioning well, and is continued to be examined by the research team so that they can learn more.

The first conclusion of the experiment is that having offshore data centres result in a lower server failure rate. Out of the 855 servers that were placed on the seabed, only 8 failed. Ben Cutler, who has led the Microsoft experiment said, “Our failure rate in the water is one-eighth of what we see on land”. The team think that the reason for this is the lack of humans onboard the data centre, alongside the fact that nitrogen was pumped into the capsule rather than oxygen. Mr Cutler goes on to say, “We think it has to do with this nitrogen atmosphere that reduces corrosion and is cool, and people not banging things around”. As the data centre was placed in very cool waters, keeping it on the seabed removed the need to use energy to cool the servers and therefore also the cost of doing so.

The findings show that although Orkney’s electricity supply comes completely from solar and wind power, there were no problems when it came to supplying the data centre with power. Spencer Fowers, one of the members of the Technical team said, “We have been able to run really well on what most land-based centres consider an unreliable grid”.

David Ross, a consultant to the data centre industry thinks that under water data centres have huge potential. “You could effectively move something to a more secure location without having all the huge infrastructure costs of constructing a building. It's flexible and cost effective.”

The result of the experiment shows that by harnessing the environment of the sea, we will have more environmentally friendly data storage, on land and under water. There are exciting times ahead for the technology industry!