<img src = "https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/project-natick-recovery-800×413.png" alt = "The Northern Islands, an underwater data center pod with 12 racks / 864 servers, is hung from the seabed in this picture after a two-year test deployment. "/> Enlarge /. The Northern Isles, an underwater data center pod with 12 racks and 864 servers, is hung from the ocean floor in this image after a two-year trial deployment.

Microsoft obtained a 40-foot, 12-rack, self-contained, underwater data center from its home on the ocean floor off the coast of the Orkney Islands earlier this summer.

Retrieving the Northern Islands began the final phase of Microsoft's Project Natick research initiative, which explored the concept of deploying sealed server pods right in front of the large offshore population centers to replace traditional onshore data centers.

Why put servers under water?

  • On the day it was deployed in 2018, the North Islands had a gleaming white paintwork with a colorful Microsoft logo. Two years underwater, however, is not a good thing …

    Scott Eklund

  • Take it from a former seaman – things don't last long when underwater, especially when they're not moving on the ocean floor.

    Jonathan Banks

  • A thorough power wash reveals the shiny pristine surface of the northern islands. We suspect that the additional costs for a colorful logo in production are not worthwhile.

    Jonathan Banks

The Natick project has been running for several years. We covered the two-month trial deployment of Leona Philpot, the company's first underwater server pod, in 2016 and the deployment of the newly retrieved Orkney Isles pod in 2018.

The potential disadvantage of sealed underwater "data centers" is obvious – they must be extremely reliable as they cannot be regularly serviced. There is, of course, a somewhat less intuitive, balancing benefit: you don't have any pesky people inside you who might unplug cables, unplug things, or otherwise wreak havoc.

These miniature underwater data centers offer other advantages. Seabed-based pods do not require expensive commercial real estate and are cooled almost free of charge by the surrounding tons of seawater.

The logistical advantage can be even more important than the cooling or immediate financial advantage. Acquiring and developing commercial real estate for a traditional data center in a large city takes a lot of time and special effort. Building a sealed pod and deploying it on the nearby ocean floor should be significantly easier and faster.

Bring back the northern islands

  • The northern islands were dragged back to lie partly under water between the beams of a portal barge.

    Jonathan Banks

  • Technicians from Naval Group and Microsoft will remove the end cap for inspection from the North Isles after it is back on land.


  • The quarters of the old U-boats with ballistic missiles "Usetafish", which I had serviced in the navy, were quite narrow – but not that narrow.

    Jonathan Banks

The Northern Isles underwater data center pod was built by the Naval Group (a defense and marine renewable energy contractor) with on-site support from Green Marine, an Orkney Island-based marine engineering and operations company. It spent two years underwater at the European Marine Energy Center, where tidal currents peak at 9 miles per hour and storm waves reach 60 feet or more.

Both the operation and the recovery of the North Islands required particularly calm weather and a whole day of careful work with robots and winches between the pontoons of a portal barge. Over the course of the capsule's two years underwater, it was coated with algae and barnacles, as well as cantaloupe-sized sea anemones that colonized sheltered corners in its base.

Analysis of the results

<img alt = "The entire data center with 12 racks and 864 servers will be taken from the body of the Northern Islands as a unit according to preliminary on site Analysis. "src =" https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/northern-isles-datacenter-extracted-from-pod-640×427.jpg "width =" 640 "height =" 427 " srcset = "https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/northern-isles-datacenter-extracted-from-pod-1280×853.jpg 2x" /> Enlarge /. After a preliminary in-situ analysis, the entire data center with 12 racks and 864 servers will be pushed out of the hull of the North Islands as a unit.

Jonathan Banks

Before the 12-rack data center unit with 864 servers was pushed out of the hull of the pod, Microsoft researchers took internal air samples from the still-sealed pod for analysis in Redmond. "We left it filled with dry nitrogen, so the environment there is pretty cheap," said Spencer Fowers, researcher at Microsoft Special Projects. By analyzing the air after two years of use, the team receives additional information about the outgassing of cables and other devices.

Servers deployed aboard the Northern Isles were failing at about an eighth rate that experts would expect from the same servers in a traditional human-serviced data center over the same amount of time. The Microsoft team suspects this is partly due to the sealed, inert nitrogen atmosphere that was used to pressurize the pod prior to use.

With no oxygen to breathe for human technicians or excessive humidity for their comfort, there are fewer opportunities for chemical damage to components. The lack of bumps and shoving by the same human operators likely contributed to the servers' unusually low failure rate.

Sustainability and efficiency

<img alt = "Windmills like this one provide 100 percent of the electricity grid that supplies the residents of the Orkney Islands – a cable from this grid also provided electricity for them Northern Islandsin addition to tidal turbines and wave energy converters. "src =" https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/quixote-but-scottish-640×404.jpg "width =" 640 "height =" 404 "srcset =" https: / /cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/quixote-but-scottish-1280×809.jpg 2x "/> enlarge /. Windmills like these provide 100 percent of the electricity grid that supplies the inhabitants of the Orkney Islands – a cable from this grid supplied tidal turbines and wave energy converters as well as the northern islands with electricity.

Scott Eklund

The North Islands' successful two-year deployment shows that greener and more sustainable data center energy initiatives are possible that go beyond the efficiency of cooling the data center itself.

One reason the Project Natick team has based the North Isles in the Orkney Islands is because the grid is powered 100 percent by wind, solar and experimental green technologies developed at the European Marine Energy Center itself. "We did very well with what most land-based data centers consider an unreliable network," said Fowers.

Ben Cutler, Project Manager at Project Natick, believes that offshore wind farms in the same location could power production facilities similar to those on the northern islands. Even light wind conditions would probably be enough to power the pods. As a last resort, a shore power line is bundled with the fiber optic data cabling of the pod. Cutler also notes that seawater cooling is not only cheaper than conventional cooling for such applications – it wastes the freshwater resources that are vital for humans and animals.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here