Microsoft has lowered a data centre into the sea off the coast of the Orkney Isles to investigate the energy savings involved in underwater data centres.

The data centre, dubbed Project Natick, involves placing a cylindrical container, around the size of a shipping container, onto the sea floor. It will be powered by renewable energy from tidal turbines and wave energy converters from the European Marine Energy Centre. These devices collect energy from the movement of the sea.

The naturally cooled data centre will use significantly less energy than a typical facility, will be self-sustaining, and may stay underwater for up to five years. During that time, it can hold data and process information while Microsoft assesses its success in terms of operation and energy efficiency.

A key point is that repairs cannot be made to the servers while it is underwater, for obvious reasons, so should any break, they will not be working again until they return to the surface. However, Microsoft engineers expect fewer problems of this kind than land-based data centres.

Orkney aisles

Ben Cutler, who’s in charge of the project, told the BBC that “because there are no people, we can take all the oxygen and most of the water vapour out of the atmosphere which reduces corrosion, which is a significant problem in data centres.”

The Orkney Islands, off the northern coast of Scotland, have a reputation as a centre of renewable energy development and progress, and Cindy Rose, Microsoft’s UK chief executive, expressed her happiness that the project is taking place in the UK.

‘I often hear of exciting research projects taking place at our headquarters in Redmond and other locations in the US, so I’m delighted this venture is taking place in the UK,’ she wrote. ‘It sends a message that Microsoft understands this country is at the cutting-edge of technology.’

Scottish officials took the same view, with Paul Wheelhouse, Energy Minister, saying: “With our supportive policy environment, skilled supply chain, and our renewable energy resources and expertise, Scotland is the ideal place to invest in projects such as this.

“This development is, clearly, especially welcome news also for the local economy in Orkney and a boost to the low carbon cluster there.”

The news comes at the same time as Facebook releases a new liquid cooling technology for its own data centres.