Goodbye Natick! Microsoft has given up on one of its coolest projects ever — underwater data center pilot canned despite successful outcomes and won’t come back

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Microsoft has officially killed off Project Natick, its underwater data center experiment, which began life in 2015.

Noelle Walsh, Head of Microsoft’s Cloud Operations + Innovation, told Data Center Dynamics, “I’m not building subsea data centers anywhere in the world. 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.”

Although we’d not heard anything about the subsea project in a while it was assumed to still be active, but we now know that’s not the case.

Moving towards robotics

The underwater data center project was first tested off the coast of Scotland in 2018. Microsoft placed 855 servers underwater for over two years, and only six of them failed. For comparison, eight out of 135 servers failed in a similar land test. In percentage terms, that’s 0.7% failure rate underwater versus a 5.9% rate on land.

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At the time, Project Natick lead Ben Cutler said he believed the subsea success rate was down to the absence of humans on board interacting with the servers in the capsule and the use of less corrosive nitrogen in place of oxygen.

Enthusing about the early findings, Microsoft Research’s technical team principal member Spencer Fowers said, “We have been able to run really well on what most land-based data centers consider an unreliable grid. We are hopeful that we can look at our findings and say maybe we don’t need to have quite as much infrastructure focused on power and reliability.”

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Project Natick was incredibly promising and Microsoft was even looking at how it could be used as an ‘artificial reef data center’ that would not only provide a good home for servers but also ocean life, but ultimately it has come to nothing.

Microsoft is exploring other advanced technologies, like robotics, to improve data center operations. Walsh told DCD, “We’re looking at robotics more from the perspective that some of these new servers will be very heavy. How can we automate that versus having people push things around? We are learning from other industries on robotics, but we’re also very cognizant that we need people. I don’t want people worried about their jobs.” The tech giant is also considering other ways of powering data centers including looking into modular nuclear reactors.

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While Microsoft has ended its underwater initiative, other companies, like ones in China, are starting their own underwater data center projects.

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