Microsoft sink data centre into the North Sea – to investigate whether it can boost energy efficiency

by Andre Vaux

Andre is Managing Director at claireLOGIC – a business which delivers IT and Communications services to businesses in the UK.

Main Image: APS

This week Microsoft will submerge a small data-rig into the sea, off the coast of Orkney, Scotland (UK). The project is being undertaken to investigate whether or not the inherently low sea temperatures can naturally cool the onboard servers, and in turn, boost efficiency.

Almost all tech equipment that we use works more efficiently when used at the right temperature. Servers and high-capacity server farms can get incredibly hot if climate-controlled rooms are not used; the cost to cool units alone can be a burden financially and environmentally.

The unit will lay at the bottom of the North Sea for the next five years in a study headed up by Microsoft’s environmental ‘Project Natick’ team.

This is the second ocean-bound experiment by Project Natick. A smaller prototype study was deployed between August and November 2015, where a vessel nicknamed Leona Philpot (named after a popular Xbox game character) was submerged one kilometre off the Pacific coast of the United States.

Image: Microsoft.

This UK project sees The European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) partnering with Microsoft. EMEC helped hook-up cabling to the mainland and consulted on environmental responsibility, providing a wealth of expertise, having delivered renewable energy projects in the location of the rig, where tides and local weather conditions can be unforgiving.

What are the pros?

  • It is estimated that currently almost 90% of all datacentres are situated in big cities across the globe and physical space to house such farms is running out.
  • Temperatures are naturally hotter in our big cities, so the effort and expense to cool server farms are inherently highly.
  • 50% of the world’s population live near the coast

What are the cons?

  • Bad weather conditions in the Orkney location may make the longevity of the project unfeasible.
  • Unfortunately, if the servers onboard break, they cannot be repaired unless the rig is raised to the surface. This would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  • Rather than the sea cooling the servers, the servers may actually heat the sea…

So, is this just another Microsoft vanity project?

Microsoft’s Ben Cutler, closely involved in the Project Natick team has indeed described the venture as a “crazy experiment” – however, insists that the study and the overall environmental impact of the Orkney data centre project will be a “positive one”.

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