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After Two Years, Microsoft’s Underwater Server Experiment Resurfaces

The retrieval of Microsoft 40-foot-long, 12-rack, self-contained underwater data center from its seafloor home offshore from the Orkney Islands.

Back in 2018, Microsoft’s Project Natick team deployed the Northern Isles datacenter 117 feet deep to the seafloor in spring 2018. For the next two years, team members tested and monitored the performance and reliability of the datacenter’s servers.

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Project Natick, Vessel retrieval Stromness, Orkney (Credits Microsoft)

The team hypothesized that a sealed container on the ocean floor could provide ways to improve the overall reliability of data centers. On land, corrosion from oxygen and humidity, temperature fluctuations, and bumps and jostles from people who replace broken components are all variables that can contribute to equipment failure.

Monday, September 14, the company has reported that its latest experimentation was a success, revealing findings that show that the idea of an underwater data center is a good one.

Lessons learned from Project Natick also inform Microsoft’s data center sustainability strategy around energy, waste, and water, said Ben Cutler, a project manager in Microsoft’s Special Projects Research Group who leads Project Natick.

He also added the proven reliability of underwater data centers has prompted discussions with a Microsoft team in Azure that’s looking to serve customers who need to deploy and operate tactical and critical data centers anywhere in the world.

“We are populating the globe with edge devices, large and small,” said William Chappell, Vice President of Mission Systems for Azure.

“To learn how to make data centers reliable enough not to need human touch is a dream of ours.”

Microsoft says the benefits are big, the underwater data center has just one-eighth the failure rate of a land-based data center, a dramatic improvement. That lower failure rate is important, given that it’s much harder to service a busted server when it’s in an airtight container at the bottom of the ocean.