Microsoft has sunk a data centre in the sea off Orkney to investigate whether it can boost energy efficiency. The facility, a white cylinder containing servers equivalent to several thousand high-end consumer PCs, could sit on the sea floor for up to five years.

If Project Natick proves a success, Microsoft envisages sinking groups of five cylinders and being able to deploy a data centre offshore in 90 days, instead of the several years it would take on land.

Orkney was chosen because it is a major centre for renewable energy research. The cylinder was built in France by a shipbuilding company, Naval, loaded with its servers and then sailed from Brittany to Stromness in Orkney.

There, another partner, the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), provided help including the undersea cable linking the centre to the shore. The presence of EMEC, with its expertise in renewable energy and its knowledge of the seas around Orkney, was one factor behind Microsoft’s decision to choose this location.

“We’ve got so much renewable energy here,” says EMEC managing director Neil Kermode. “We’ve produced more than we need since 2012.”

Cindy Rose, Microsoft UK’s chief executive, commented: “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.”

PaulWheelhouse, the Scottish Government’s Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy, added: “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.”