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Microsoft Sinks Data Centre Off Orkney Coast

Brian Baglow

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Microsoft Project Natick Data Centre

A new undersea data centre has been placed on the sea bed off the coast of Orkney in the quest for a zero emissions future.

Microsoft has installed the second phase of it’s Project Natick data centre, in a sealed capsule, at the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) off the coast of Orkney.

The goal of Project Natick is to find out whether placing data centres under water is more energy efficient than placing them on land, where the energy usage for cooling is one of the biggest cost factors. The underwater centre takes advantage of the temperature of the environment, using a duel air/water cooling system to reduce the need for additional energy.

Zero Emissions, No Humans

By combining a greatly reduced requirement for cooling, with access to nearby renewable energy, the potential for zero emission data centres becomes far greater. This could be a huge benefit to the data centre sector, which is one of the most energy hungry digital industries in the world.

The data centre will operate in a ‘lights out’ state with no human presence whatsoever for the entire one year deployment. This will allow most of the oxygen and water vapour to be removed from the centre’s atmosphere, which should greatly reduce the degree of corrosion in the equipment, a major problem in data centres on land.

This will be significant as, once the data centre capsule is in place, maintenance of the equipment inside will be impossible.

Renewable Energy Surplus

The European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), provided help including the undersea cable linking the data centre to the shore. EMEC’s, experience in underwater installations around Orkney and expertise in renewable energy was a significant factor in Microsoft’s decision to choose this location.

“We’ve got so much renewable energy here,” commented EMEC managing director Neil Kermode. “We’ve produced more than we need since 2012.”

Ben Cutler, Microsoft Research Project Natick lead, said: “Half the world’s population lives within 200km of the sea, so placing data centres offshore increases the proximity of the cloud to the population, reducing latency and providing better responsiveness.

“And by deploying in the water we benefit from ready access to cooling – reducing the requirement for energy for cooling by up to 95%.”

Scotland an Innovation Champion

Paul Wheelhouse, the Scottish Government’s Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy, told DIGIT: “With our supportive policy environment, skilled supply chain, and our renewable energy resources and expertise, Scotland is the ideal place to invest in projects such as this.

“This development is, clearly, especially welcome news also for the local economy in Orkney and a boost to the low carbon cluster there. It helps to strengthen Scotland’s position as a champion of the new ideas and innovation that will shape the future.”

UK a Leader in Cloud Computing

Cindy Rose, Microsoft UK’s chief executive, commented: “I often hear of exciting research projects taking place at our headquarters in Redmond and other locations in the US, so I’m delighted this venture is taking place in the UK.

“It sends a message that Microsoft understands this country is at the cutting-edge of technology, a leader in cloud computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning. It’s a view I see reflected in every chief executive, consumer and politician I meet; the UK is ready for the fourth industrial revolution and the benefits that it will bring.”

Enterprise Data Planning in Financial Services event

Project Natick Data Centre Specifications

The Project Natick pressure vessel is 12.2m in length, 2.8m in diameter (3.18m including external components) or about the size of a standard 40′ ISO shipping container.

The data centre requires 240KW of power. This will be provided by 100% locally produced renewable electricity from on-shore wind and solar, off-shore tide and wave.

While Project Natick is not large in terms of land-based data centres, the capsule contains 12 racks, each containing 864 standard Microsoft datacenter servers with FPGA acceleration and 27.6 Petabytes of disk space.

The environment within the data centre will be 100% dry nitrogen, maintained at a pressure of one atmosphere.

Movers and shakers

Brian Baglow

Editor

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