A Cloud in the Ocean: Microsoft’s Project Natick
A Cloud in the Ocean: Microsoft’s Project Natick
With Project Natick, Microsoft put a brand new data centre at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, right off the coast of Orkney. But is it madness or pure genius?
When news broke last week that Microsoft had put a new data centre 117 feet under the sea, plenty of people suspected the large enterprise of going absolutely mad. Microsoft, however, quickly went public to explain their reasoning.
And it’s actually quite clever.
You see, the demand for cloud computing has gone through a massive increase over the past few years. And, as you’re probably aware, data centres are the very backbone of cloud computing. Located worldwide, the massive power of these data centres ensure that you and I can send our emails, order an Uber, or do a Netflix marathon without too much of a fuss.
Unfortunately, these computers are notoriously power-consuming, and especially when doing things such as distributing large amounts of data and information. And to be fair, we make computers do that quite a lot. We have already seen some data centres being powered by renewable sources of energy, such as wind power and solar power.
But what if you could use tidal power to keep the computers cold?
Putting an entire data centre at the very bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, is not exactly an obvious solution for most of us. But Peter Line, VP of Microsoft AI, thought it was a brilliant idea: “When you go for a moonshot, you might not ever get to the moon” he excitedly explained, “It is great if you do but, regardless, you learn a lot”.
That’s undoubtedly a good attitude to have in life, but what is the actual reason behind Project Natick?
Well, according to Line, cooling is an important part of running a data centre. However, in the process of keeping the computers from overheating, you can often end up with substantial costs. As the engineers at Microsoft geniusly thought of, the cold streams of the deep sea could automatically cool down their data centres and potentially make them less costly in the long run.
But what if it fails? Microsoft previously tested a similar solution - a smaller capsule was dropped off the coast of California in 2015, gently nestled up under 30 feet of water. The capsule operated successfully for 105 days. The success of the trial project greatly inspired the Microsoft researchers, all of whom are experts at out-of-the-box suggestions.
A Big Opportunity for Orkney
Project Natick have been welcomed by the local community in Orkney.
Graeme Harrison, Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s area manager for Orkney, said: “Project Natick is a hugely exciting development for Orkney, one which reflects the faith major companies such as Microsoft have in our enterprising community.”
Microsoft chose Orkney because it wants its data to run on renewable power - and, as you might know, Orkney is a major renewable energy hub. Harrison excitedly explained how: “Innovation and collaboration are bywords for life in Orkney, with the islands a global centre for marine energy development and other advances in the field of renewables and energy storage. In addition to the European Marine Energy Centre, we have a range of highly experienced renewables supply chain businesses, all well qualified to assist with the logistics and delivery of complex projects such as Natick. Microsoft recognised that expertise and we hope their confidence in turning to Orkney will encourage similar developments here in the future. That can only be a good thing in terms of boosting Orkney’s knowledge economy and strengthening the international reputation of the islands.”
But what about the environment itself? One might think that putting large data centres at the bottom of the sea will have environmental repercussions. Microsoft, however, can ensure us that nothing like this happened in the initial trial in 2015. “During our deployment of the Leona Philpot vessel, sea life in the local vicinity quickly adapted to the presence of the vessel” Microsoft stated in an article published on the Project Natic website.
For the local community, Project Natick can potentially offer so much more than just technology. Harrison also believes that the project can make an impact on sustainable tourism: “There’s certainly potential for Orkney to attract more visitors with a specific interest in technology, innovation and renewables, but it’s too early to say how much the presence of Project Natick will impact on tourism here. Ultimately, Orkney’s clean environment underpins much within our community, from agriculture and food and drink, to tourism, so ground breaking technology projects which utilise our renewables output can only be viewed positively.”
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