Microsoft's Project Natick at the launch site in the city of Stromness on Orkney Island, Scotland on Sunday May 27, 2018

The Orkney Islands in Scotland just became one of the most exciting places in tech

By Cindy Rose, Chief Executive of Microsoft UK

It is easy to take technology for granted. People can work from anywhere, collaborate like never before and share ideas in new and exciting ways. An entire generation is growing up with the world literally at their fingertips; every piece of information ever discovered is just a click away on their mobile phone.

As our reliance on technology increases, so do the demands we place on it.

This is why I am excited by the news today that a Microsoft research project is pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved, to ensure that we empower every person and organisation to achieve more.

I am lucky to be able to work with some of the world’s brightest minds, and be surrounded by cutting-edge technology. However, I’m still amazed by what our staff’s passion and creativity can lead to.

Project Natick is one such example. Microsoft is exploring the idea that data centres – essentially the backbone of the internet – can be based on the sea floor. Phase 2 of this research project has just begun in the Orkney Islands, where a more eco-friendly data centre was lowered into the water. The shipping-container-sized prototype, which will be left in the sea for a set period of time before being recovered, can hold data and process information for up to five years without maintenance. Despite being as powerful as several thousand high-end consumer PCs, the data centre uses minimal energy, as it’s naturally cooled.

It is powered by renewable energy from the European Marine Energy Centre’s tidal turbines and wave energy converters, which generate electricity from the movement of the sea. Creating solutions that are sustainable is critical for Microsoft, and Project Natick is a step towards our vision of data centres with their own sustainable power supply. It builds on environmental promises Microsoft has made, including a $50m pledge to use AI to help protect the planet.

Almost half of the world’s population lives near large bodies of water. Having data centres closer to billions of people using the internet will ensure faster and smoother web browsing, video streaming and gaming, while businesses can enjoy AI-driven technologies.

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. It sends a message that Microsoft understands this country is at the cutting-edge of technology, a leader in cloud computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning. It’s a view I see reflected in every chief executive, consumer and politician I meet; the UK is ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the benefits that it will bring.

Men work in Microsoft data centre

Spencer Fowers (left), senior member of technical staff for Microsoft’s special projects research group, and Eric Peterson, a Microsoft mechanical engineer, check 12 racks of servers to be loaded into Project Natick’s 12.2-metre-long Northern Isles data centre at a Naval Group facility in Brest, France (Photo by Frank Betermin)

The support from the Scottish government for Project Natick reflects this. Paul Wheelhouse, Energy Minister, said: “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. It helps to strengthen Scotland’s position as a champion of the new ideas and innovation that will shape the future.”

I’m proud that some of the first milestones achieved by Project Natick will occur in UK waters, and hope that the work being done in the Orkney Islands will be replicated in similar data centres in other locations in the future.

Peter Lee, corporate vice-president of Microsoft AI and Research, said Project Natick’s demands are “crazy”, but these are the lengths our company is going to in order to make potentially revolutionary ideas a reality.

Only by demanding more of ourselves as a technology company will we meet the demands of our customers.