What makes Microsoft’s new data centre so special?
This month saw the launch of something that could revolutionise the way we store and use data for our managed IT services, Project Natick is Microsoft’s new deep sea data centre which has been sunk off the coast of the Orkney Islands. The data centre, which is the second of its kind is both an innovation in the way we store data and green tech. With increasing reliance on cloud services and our addiction to the storage of our data, we’ve gone from needing floppy disks to terabytes of data capacity each. The temptation to save data “just in case” has made us digital hoarders and our digital cupboards are rapidly filling up!
Enter, Project Natick! With an initial lifecycle of five years, it will be sunk near the Orkneys and powered using renewable energy sources from the islands themselves. Data centres typically generate a lot of heat and using the sea to cool the equipment inside this data centre, Microsoft hopes, will save on energy by using the coolness of the seas around the Orkneys. The centre, which looks a bit like an oil tanker will be almost impossible to repair during its five-year lifespan, but since typically much of the hardware in data centres and cloud servers such as this is updated after this time period, this may make warranty costs somewhat higher but since cost savings are achieved elsewhere, there are advantages.
The timeframes and manufacturing are different for this project against a typical land-based data centre. Rather than a construction project, the centre, which is deliberately the size of a shipping container is manufactured. It is then easily transportable, in this case, loaded on to a truck in France and then by ferry to the UK and another ferry to Orkney. The deployment time means that money doesn’t have to be found as far in advance as it can be manufactured, fitted out and deployed in a relatively short timescale. A data centre on land could take 18 months to two years to build but this model could be held in stock and have a deployment schedule as short as 90 days, cutting costs and increasing flexibility.
Of course, this currently is only one data centre, which is tiny compared with the huge centres that process most of the world’s information, it has only 12 server racks and room for five million movies, which is a drop in the ocean. The eventual aim is to sink clusters of centres which will serve much larger populations, especially considering that 50% of the world’s population is based within 120 miles of coastline, bring the possibility of multiple modules possibly around a hub which could store large amounts of data and serve much larger areas. Of course, the green credentials of the project are pretty attractive, using renewable energy and using sea water to cool means that environmental impact is much less than land-based centres. There is also the possibility that centres may be able to generate their own power using tidal energy, which is a reliable, predictable energy generator which could be used as a backup. This, in turn, would mean there was no need for a backup generator and batteries. This could be a solution for many locations in the developing world where tapping into a country or city’s electricity grid and water supply are not options, you also have lower costs associated with producing it and staffing it too. So, bringing better technology to developing countries is just one of the many possibilities raised by this development.
So, over the next few years, we can expect to see more exploration of the possibilities around undersea data centres and Microsoft hopes it will revolutionise the way cloud services are launched in coastal areas.
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