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Microsoft discontinues ‘Project Natick’, the ambitious underwater data centre experiment

Out of the 855 servers that Microsoft submerged for more than two years, only six of them failed

Microsoft’s underwater data centre experiment, ‘Project Natick,’ which got underway in 2015, has been officially discontinued.

“I’m not developing subsea data centres anywhere in the world. With the help of my team, it was successful. About operations below sea level, vibration, and its effects on the server, we learned a great deal. Thus, we’ll use those insights in other situations. We now know that the subsea project is not still in progress, despite the fact that we hadn’t heard anything about it in a long time,” said Noelle Walsh, Head of Microsoft’s Cloud Operations plus Innovation, as reported by Techradar.

In 2018, a test of the underwater data centre project was conducted off the coast of Scotland. Out of the 855 servers that Microsoft submerged for more than two years, only six of them failed.

In contrast, a similar land test yielded eight out of 135 failures. To put it in percentage terms, the failure rate underwater is 0.7%, while the rate on land is 5.9%.

Ben Cutler, the head of Project Natick, stated at the time that he thought the subsea success rate was due to the use of less caustic nitrogen instead of oxygen and the fact that there were no humans on board interacting with the servers in the capsule.

“We have been able to run really well on what most land-based data centres 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,” Spencer Fowers, Microsoft Research’s technical team principal member, said.

In the end, Project Natick was a complete failure, despite Microsoft’s high hopes for it. They even considered using it as an “artificial reef data centre,” which would serve as a home for both servers and marine life.

Microsoft is looking into robotics and other cutting-edge technologies to enhance data centre operations. Talking about the data centre, the tech giant will build a “hyper-scale data centre” on a site south of Leeds, England, for which, it has agreed to purchase 48 acres of the 162-acre site from the Harworth Group for 106.6 million pound (USD 135.66 million), as reported by the BBC. The completion of the sale is expected in 2026.

Talking about Microsoft’s relationship with the United Kingdom, the Satya Nadella-led venture famously battled with the European country’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) over the purchase of Activision Blizzard. The British administration forced Microsoft to divest some licenses to Ubisoft and at one point during the legal battle an Activision Blizzard spokesperson said the country was “closed for business.” Now the “hyperscale data centre” news shows that those cold days are over.

Microsoft announced plans to spend roughly USD 3.2 billion on the United Kingdom’s AI infrastructure in December 2023. The investment includes sites in London, Cardiff, and potentially northern England. Microsoft will also invest in AI upscaling by training one million people. The tech giant also plans to work with the European nation’s government and AI Safety Institute to ensure things are secure. Microsoft launched its AI hub in London in April 2024 as part of its investment plan.

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