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Microsoft has ended its experiment to put data centers in the bottom of the ocean

Microsoft logo lit up by its halo

In 2016, Microsoft announced an experiment called Project Natick. In basic terms, it was set up to see if data centers could be installed and run underwater in the oceans. After a number of smaller test runs, the company installed its Northern Isles data center, with 864 servers, under 117 feet of water off the coast of Scotland in the spring of 2018.

In 2020, the company revealed the results of its biggest test run for Project Natick. It confirmed its theory that putting a data center deep underwater allowed them to not encounter as many issues as they would have if they had been installed normally on land which might lead to hardware failures.

Indeed, Microsoft claims that the underwater servers suffered 1/8th of the equipment failures compared to a land-based data center. Furthermore, Microsoft claimed such underwater servers could be set up and installed in 90 days, compared to up to two years for building a land data center.

However, despite those glowing reports four years ago, Microsoft has now quietly confirmed that it has ended its underwater data center experiment. According to the Data Center Dynamics website, Noelle Walsh, Microsoft's head of its Cloud Operations + Innovation (CO+I) division, stated the company is "not building subsea data centers anywhere in the world,"

Welsh added:

My team worked on it, and it worked. We learned a lot about operations below sea level and vibration and impacts on the server. So we'll apply those learnings to other cases.

Microsoft also offered its own statement on not going forward with future underwater data centers:

While we don’t currently have data centers in the water, we will continue to use Project Natick as a research platform to explore, test, and validate new concepts around data center reliability and sustainability, for example with liquid immersion.

It will be interesting to see what Microsoft does next with the lessons learned from this experiment, especially as it will likely need more data centers build to keep up with the current trend towards offering AI services.

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